MAY 6, 2020
[REFSA DISCUSS #4] “Build Back Better”: Constructing our Post-COVID-19 future
International Cooperation is key in Building Back Better post-COVID-19
Panel of experts at REFSA’s Webinar discuss the importance of working together to build a robust social safety net, and a resilient and sustainable economy as countries emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.
Sharing her views in this area, Ivy Kwek, Research Director of REFSA stressed that policy responses to immediate needs now will have long term implications, and will in a way determine the length and severity of the crisis, and shape the future. “We must not ‘waste this crisis’ but take this opportunity to build back better our society, to carve a recovery path that is people centric, resilient and sustainable”. Citing the example of former US President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps Programme during the Great Depression, which put hundreds and thousands of unemployed young men to rehabilitate forests, she opined that governments have an important role to play to invest in innovations that will generate social goods in the post-COVID-19 crisis rebuilding effort.
The webinar featured Her Excellency Maria Castillo Fernandez, the Ambassador and Head of Delegation of the European Union to Malaysia; Mr Niloy Banerjee, Resident Representative for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam of the United Nations Development Programme; and Dr Khor Swee Kheng, a Health Systems Specialist currently pursuing his postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford.
These experts concurred that more state action from governments and greater collaboration between countries are needed to build back better post-COVID-19.
Her Excellency Maria Castillo Fernandez said, “We cannot think in isolation and in an inward-looking way. We have to rebuild together, and have a common approach. We need big doses of international cooperation and solidarity in order to ‘build back better’ – none of us can get out of this alone”. H.E opined that COVID-19 will not be the end of globalisation, but the beginning of a different one. One of the areas to relook at is the reconfiguration of Global Supply Chains to reduce reliance on any one nation, and also to pool resources together. As producer of medical supplies, Malaysia will have an important role to play in this. The European Union’s (EU) recovery strategy will build on an existing focus of mitigating climate change and increasing digitalisation, while maintaining and protecting workers. These are areas that Malaysia can particularly look into to continue its transformation into a high income economy.
Dr Khor Swee Kheng said that COVID-19 has highlighted existing gaps and pointed to the urgent need for health reform. He introduced the social determinants of health such as education, gender equality, proper employment rights, and water quality which experts estimate have contributed to 60-80% of the nation’s health status. “If we were to have an additional 1 billion ringgit, instead of building more hospitals, we should have channelled the funds to these determinants”, he said. Furthermore, social contracts will need to be rewritten, where we underline the responsibility between government and its people, the employers and the employees, and the rich and the poor.
Mr Niloy Banerjee calls for a greater emphasis on mitigating inequality, arguing that the tackling of inequality should be a critical component of any new social contract we develop. New forms of inequality are emerging and are likely to have long-lasting effects, including climate change and digital inequality. A robust social safety net must be provided in order to alleviate this pressing concern. Further, Mr Banerjee argues that the crisis provides an opportune moment for Malaysia to embark on green economy by revisiting fossil fuels subsidies, in favour of investment in clean energy infrastructure and prudent management of nature, so that we develop sustainably within the planetary bounds.
Other takeaways from the the forum are as follows:
Her Excellency Maria Castillo Fernandez underlined the importance of cooperation and collaboration, and emphasised that the ‘new normal’ did not have to be a complete reboot, but one that incorporates dynamics of good practices that were already in existence.
The crisis revealed vulnerabilities in our health systems – and to this, the EU is focussed to pool resources and stakeholders on board for greater collaboration in science and the search of a vaccine, reshoring manufacturing and the ‘strategic autonomy’ of what strategic market segments needed to be kept in Europe. This crisis has also brought the EU to re-examine its Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) scrutiny mechanisms, and seen an increasing demand for state action. “In any scenario, we have to count on open trade” (for stability and predictability, and) the single market for Europe must remain open”.
Noting the large presence of European companies in Malaysia, H.E. emphasised that the 250,000 Malaysian workforce essentially made them Malaysian companies with interest to remain in the country. H.E. emphasised the importance of international cooperation and solidarity including the need for attention to vulnerable communities, human rights, climate change and the role of multilateral arrangements.
Dr Khor Swee Kheng proposed a Health Reform Act to create an independent and sustainable Parliamentary Committee that will survive political transitions. The committee will be tasked to 1) reform the financing structure of the health system, 2) reform how ministries and hospitals are structured, and 3) reexamine human capital and training issues in the healthcare sector. Those who are considered as essential workers in the battle against COVID-19 could be considered as essential workers post COVID-19.
Dr Khor also highlighted the importance of tax justice. Countries have been engaging in a “race to the bottom” by slashing corporate taxes to attract FDI. This is a worrying trend as we need to ensure emerging countries benefit from tax justice to improve their health systems. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, global collaboration in tax justice has become ever more important to ensure countries can ‘build back better’.
Various media covered the webinar, in no particular order:
Bernama, read here
The Malaysian Insight, read here
Free Malaysia today, read here
Sinchew, 星洲日报, read here