Friday, September 17, 2021
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Urgent Multilateral Cooperation To Build Back Better

By Rebecca Sta Maria

By meeting in July,
APEC Leaders break tradition to highlight the importance of
coming together amid the crisis.

The first COVID-19
vaccines were born from great need and rapid innovation.
Normally an arduous process involving years of funding
applications, negotiations, investigations, testing and
production, development of the pantheon of vaccines
inoculating the world right now was completed at a rapid
pace. Faced with crisis, scientists, doctors, manufacturers,
and regulators from around the world worked hard, fast and

In other words, the race for the vaccines
was an achievement that deserves a proportionate response
from policymakers.

Indeed, we are not only talking
about domestic policy—individual governments have done
their best on their own this year to control the virus and
its economic effects. Many, for example, have taken
extraordinary fiscal and monetary measures by ways of
stimulus in order to respond effectively to the needs of

But unilateral action will never be enough.
Vaccines are made up of over 280 materials and components
produced by many suppliers in 19 locations around the world.
If they are to be produced quickly and distributed to all
economies as needed, and administered equitably within each
one, we need flexibility and innovation in how we cooperate
with each other.

When leaders of the 21 members of the
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum met through
video call on 16 July, it was precisely what the doctor
ordered, and a promising sign of the region rallying against
the virus.

No one would doubt the priority of every
government today is COVID-19, which remains a health and
economic crisis 19 months after it was declared by the World
Health Organization. If last year was a swift shift into
crisis mode after its sudden emergence, this year is marked
by an understanding of how deadly the virus is, and how
deeply it can damage our society and economy in the long
term should we not take collective action. The APEC Chair,
New Zealand Prime minister Jacinda Ardern, and the rest of
the leaders decided that their collective attention to this
crisis couldn’t wait until November.

For two and a
half hours last Friday leaders conversed with
representatives of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and
the World Health Organization (WHO) and engaged in a
thriving dialogue amongst themselves, which covered three
cardinal points.

First, leaders focused on tackling
the health crisis by getting as many people inoculated as
soon as possible, as well as strengthen health systems.
APEC’s ministers have already agreed to speed up the flow
of vaccines across borders. A reaffirmation of this from
leaders, and agreement to move beyond vaccine nationalism,
will light a fire under efforts to get vaccines to everyone.
Without such commitments to get vaccines where they are
needed, the extraordinary science that produced the vaccines
would have been wasted. As Dr Michael Ryan of the WHO health
emergencies program puts it when asked what are the three
most important things for epidemic preparedness and
response: “governance, governance and governance,” and
that’s coming from an epidemiologist.

Second, leaders
discussed the challenge of sustaining economies through the
crisis. Stimulus measures must continue to sustain jobs and
businesses, markets be kept open, and confidence amongst
economies kept strong. In part, this requires relying on and
supporting institutions like the World Trade Organization
that offer much needed predictability through trade rules.
Once on stable ground, the Asia-Pacific—one of the most
productive and dynamic regions in the world—can innovate
its way to recovery.

The third point of discussion was
about the nature of the recovery. Leaders recognize that
alongside catastrophe is opportunity. If economies make
smart decisions in dealing with the immediate impacts of the
pandemic, it is possible that the region emerges from this
crisis as more inclusive and digitally enabled economies,
with better infrastructure and prospects available to
everyone regardless of age, race, gender, or economic and
social standing. Equally important to leaders is learning
from the past year to build resilience against future shocks
by bolstering health systems as well as our mechanisms for

Regional cooperation will have a key role in
the rebuilding process. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the
importance of a coordinated and cooperative response to
regional and global crises. APEC is especially well-placed
to take a prominent role in this. It is deeply affected but
also the best equipped to deal with the health

The 21 APEC members include the largest
economies in the world as well as smaller economies,
offering a uniquely diverse perspective going round the
table. Many middle-income economies have excellent case
studies for stemming the virus’s initial waves through
sound domestic policy and well-planned agreements with other
members. They have much to offer in policy coordination and
the sharing of best practices.

At the same time some
APEC economies are the world’s biggest exporters of
vaccines, the distribution of which will be essential in
stamping out further waves and paving the way to

Leaders have made it clear that no one will
be safe unless everyone is safe. They have stated their
commitments and have issued their orders. We have the unique
opportunity this year to work quickly to achieve life-saving
results by the time they meet again in November, which will
set the tone for when Thailand hosts APEC in

Dr Rebecca Sta Maria is the executive
director of the APEC Secretariat. A version of this article
published by the NZ

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