COVID-19 is a global health crisis unlike any other, causing immense human suffering, destabilizing the global economy and upending the lives of billions of people around the globe. Over 25 million people could lose their jobs in the wake of the pandemic, according to the ILO. And IMF and UNCTAD estimate that COVID-19 is likely to cost the world economy a staggering one trillion US dollars in 2020 alone.
For the past few decades, Asia and the Pacific has been the economic engine of the world, but the coronavirus outbreak is wreaking havoc across economies, as several countries go into lockdown mode, driving businesses and factories to a standstill. For many countries, the crisis comes on top of recent shocks and pre-existing vulnerabilities like extreme poverty, growing inequality, trade war, natural disasters, and climate change.
The Royal Government of Bhutan, under the leadership of His Majesty the King, has acted proactively against the threats of COVID-19. Thanks to a targeted and remarkably effective response, we have not seen the community transmission of the virus in Bhutan at this time. However, the economic impact of the pandemic has been transmitted and the consequences are evident. About 50,000 people in the tourism and affiliated sectors are already impacted.
Despite the unprecedented disruptions, stimulus packages that are being designed by many governments around the world present an unprecedented opportunity to realize low-carbon, sustainable and inclusive development. While massive resources are injected into the economy at a rapid speed, the question is: how do we resist the temptation to go back to the old normal, characterized by unsustainable consumption and carbon emission and instead, co-create a new normal? Do we have the courage and wisdom to act decisively and quickly? The world must catalyze on unintended positive consequences of the pandemic and not repeat the mistakes of the past. What could be silver linings for the global community and for Bhutan?
Accelerating Climate Action
Amidst the COVID panic, we almost lost focus on the longer-term crisis faced by humanity – devastating climate change and biodiversity loss. The pandemic has brought air travel almost to a complete halt, pushed industries to slow down and reduced the demand for energy. Some megacities are seeing blue and clear skies for the first time in a long time. While transport and industry must resume, can they do so along less-polluting pathways? Can we avoid a post COVID relapse into the devasting patter of unsustainable emissions? The pandemic may be showing us that we can recover economic activity with sustainable outcomes, giving us an opportunity to make the very changes that countless summits and rounds of negotiations failed to deliver.
With the fiscal stimulus packages being introduced around the world, governments can, for example, target measures towards investments in low-carbon equipment and facilities, and further promote sustainable tourism and agriculture. We might all fundamentally rethink how we organize knowledge sharing and meetings and invest assertively in technology to minimize non-essential travel.
For this to happen, significant investments in reliable and affordable digital technologies, internet services and hardware are required. The 2019 UNDP Human Development Report identified ‘access to technology’ as one of the emerging factors contributing to today's inequality. The COVID-19 crisis proved measures such as physical distancing, on-line schooling, working from home are privileges reserved for a few. Only 20 percent of the population in the least developed countries have access to the internet. In Bhutan, while 58 percent have an internet connection, mostly through mobile phones, less than three percent have access to broadband.
Technology has played a critical role in tracing people, sharing real-time data, and sharing information on the pandemic. Also, technology has been advancing the medical research and response, such as 3D printing production of PPEs. The pandemic has given impetuous to technological advancement, E-governance and e-business development as many governments spearheaded transformation by streamlining and digitizing government services in support of improved business environment and public services. This trend must be part of the new normal, and it will certainly be beneficial for Bhutan where service delivery is in general greatly challenged by its complex geographical setup.
Transforming the economy
In Bhutan, debates around how to strengthen self-sufficiency on food production and securing the labor force in sectors such as construction and agriculture have already begun. The pandemic has shown how inter-linked we all are as members of the global community, and at the same time, how important it is to be self-reliant. This need not be contradictory goals.
The recovery plans around the world are building in measures to enhance resilience and reduce the vulnerability of countries and communities at a time of the crisis. Indeed, communities and local innovators in Bhutan have come forward with solutions to tackle one of the most complex and persisting crisis – be it developing real-time tracking apps to strengthen health service systems, or developing fallow land to increase agricultural production for greater food security. The crisis presents opportunities to accelerate the vision of the Royal Government to build national capabilities in critical skill areas such as agriculture and other areas of vocational training.
Guided by the ethos of Gross-National Happiness (GNH), Bhutan as a community of people has always shown an incredible level of compassion and inclusion, including caring for the sick and the elderly, or others less fortunate.
As this pandemic adds to the existing inequalities faced by vulnerable populations, particularly informal workers, migrants, elderly, women and people with disabilities, Bhutan has shown that it need not be so. The pandemic, along with quarantine measures, has increased the unpaid burden on women (they do three times as much unpaid care work at home as men) and there has been a reported rise in domestic violence. Vulnerability-targeted cash transfers, credit lines and jobs go a long way to ease the economic burden. At the same time, the values that underpin GNH are called on even more during times of societal stress. And Bhutan can demonstrate to the world that we can get through this without resorting to violence, stigmatization and discrimination.
The COVID-19 crisis will shrink fiscal space in all countries. This will have direct implications for countries ability to invest in SDG-related public expenditures, leaving a significant dent in the Last Decade of Action before 2030. Rolling out ambitious recovery packages takes time, particularly to reach the most vulnerable. Access to accurate and real-time data on the extent and nature of the vulnerability is key for targeted and effective interventions.
Preparing for the new normal
While countries around the world are grappling with the response to the pandemic, we must start visioning and preparing for our new normal. Recovery can be steered toward more sustainable and inclusive pathways that demonstrate very tangible economic, social and environmental gains, and help countries realize a future that is fully aligned with the aspirations of SDGs. It is up to all of us to turn this page.
Blog by Azusa Kubota, Resident Representative of UNDP Bhutan. It was also published in Kuensel, Bhutan's leading national newspaper, on 15 April 2020.