Developing countries of Asia and the Pacific are experiencing unbalanced tolls of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Grim milestones in infections and deaths have left countless devastated. Yet, we must look at the economic and social impacts in small island developing States (SIDS), where setbacks are likely to undo years of development gains and push many people back into poverty.
Compared to other developing countries, SIDS in the Asia-Pacific region have done well in containing the spread of the virus. So far, available data indicates relatively few cases of infections, with 15 deaths in total in Maldives, Guam and Northern Mariana Islands. Yet while rapid border closures have contained the human cost of the virus, the economic and social impacts of the pandemic on SIDS will place the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) even farther out of their reach. This is worrying as SIDS in Asia and the Pacific were only on track to reach SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure and SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production and as they had in fact regressed in SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, a crucial driver of inclusive development and key to reaching all SDGs.
One reason SIDS’ economies are severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic is their dependence on tourism. Tourism earnings exceed 50 per cent of GDP in Maldives and Palau and comprised 30 per cent of GDP in Samoa and Vanuatu in 2018. Measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, including restricting entrance to countries and halting international travel, will have a profound impact on the development of these economies in 2020 and beyond, with estimates of international tourist arrivals declining globally by 60-80 per cent in 2020. The pandemic has particularly affected the cruise ship industry, which plays an important role in many SIDS.
The severe impact of COVID-19 on these economies is also a result of heavy reliance on fisheries, which represent a main source of SIDS’ marine wealth and bring much-needed public revenues. The COVID-19 pandemic crisis will jeopardize these income streams as a result of a slowdown in fisheries activity. However, it is important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic may also create a small window for stocks to recover if it leads to a global slowdown of the commercial fishing industry.
Despite the tourism and fisheries sectors’ susceptibility to shocks, ESCAP’s latest report, the Asia-Pacific Countries with Special Needs Development Report: Leveraging Ocean Resources for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, emphasizes fisheries and tourism will remain drivers of sustainable development in small island developing States of Asia and the Pacific. They are among the most important sectors in their contribution to output and their importance for livelihoods. In the short term, addressing the consequences of the COVID‑19 pandemic must take priority, but the long-term global context will usher in an era supportive of tourism development in Asia-Pacific SIDS. This is due to an increasing demand from the emerging middle class of developing Asia and the ageing society in the developed countries on the Pacific Rim.
As part of post COVID-19 recovery, new foundations for sustainable tourism and fisheries in Asia-Pacific SIDS must be built. These sectors must not only have extensive links to local communities and economies, but also be resilient to external shocks. Enhancing economic resilience must focus on building both the necessary physical infrastructure and creating institutional response mechanisms. For example, a ‘green tax’ for tourists can generate revenues for environmental protection. Such fees serve as an additional benefit for local populations and regulate the impact of tourism on SIDS’ fragile natural environment. SIDS may consider innovative financing instruments like blue bonds and and debt for conservation swaps to expand their fiscal space. Open data sharing, and the collection, harmonization and use of fisheries data can be strengthened for integrated and nuanced analysis on the state of fish stocks.
Given the limited capacity of the health-care systems of many Asia-Pacific SIDS, shutting down access to many of these economies was a wise and necessary short-term policy choice. Opening ‘travel bubbles’ with countries where the virus has been brought under control is now important. In the longer term, the effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development must take priority. This entails ensuring sustainable use of existing ocean resources and developing sectors that provide productive employment, including specific types of tourism and fisheries. SIDS can do more to embrace the blue economy to foster sustainable development and greater regional cooperation is an important element for creating an enabling framework. Regional cooperation is especially important given the nature of fisheries as a common property resource and the remote locations of most Asia-Pacific SIDS.
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a stark reminder of the price of weaknesses in health systems, social protection and public services. It also provides a historic opportunity to advocate for policy decisions that are pro-environment, pro-climate and pro-poor. Progress in our region’s SIDS through sustainable tourism and fisheries are vital components of a global roadmap for an inclusive and sustainable future.
Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific