Economic Community and Cross-Border Co-Operation Are Key to Covid Recovery

Government-imposed economic shutdowns have seemingly accelerated the unraveling of globalization, barring leisure and business travelers — regardless of their passports — from once frequently visited destinations. In New York, London, Bangkok and other cities that were once among the world’s most visited, restaurants and small businesses have closed and airports have emptied.

Yet, there remains hope for better days ahead.

Critically, progress continues in the search for medical solutions to the ongoing pandemic. US election-year rhetoric should not obscure either steps forward or missteps in the Covid-19 battle. (As of 6 November 2020, there were 319 treatments and 214 vaccines being tracked by my Milken Institute colleagues in a widely cited ‘Covid-19 Treatment and Vaccine Tracker’, using an aggregation of publicly available information from validated sources). From telehealth and online learning to now ubiquitous Zoom meetings, technology has played a critical role in mitigating today’s limits on local, national, and global mobility.

However, even before a vaccine is developed, more attention must be paid today to shaping innovative economic responses to Covid-19’s impact. One example is efforts by destinations such as Bermuda and Croatia to explore longer-stay visas for visitors who meet existing health and travel requirements.  Think not just staycation, but ‘workation’, as countries innovate to attract coronavirus-free digital nomads committed to stay for a while, with money to spend or capital to invest.

And Southeast Asia could well provide an example of expanded, pandemic-driven regional cooperation building on the existing foundation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Economic Community (AEC), established in December 2015 by the 10 ASEAN member states (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) as a move towards a globally competitive single market and production base. This included a commitment to freer — if not quite free — movement of goods and services, labor, capital, and investments across the region.

Much might be aspirational given the diversity of the 10 nations. This is underscored by the October 2020 Henley Passport Index, whose ranking of ASEAN nations ranged from Singapore in 2nd position (with visa-free access to 190 nations) to Myanmar in 93rd position (with visa-free access to only 47 nations).

One thing is clear, however. Regardless of when the pandemic ends and of who sits in the White House in 2021, ASEAN matters. Covid-19 and changing travel policies will not change Southeast Asia’s growing importance.

ASEAN encompasses a GDP of USD 2.8 trillion and is home to more than 650 million people — a population larger than that of all but two countries. The US remains the largest investor in this strategically important region, having invested more in the ASEAN region than its combined investment in all the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), according to the US-ASEAN Business Council.

Strengthening and building on existing cross-border business, investment, and other financial relationships must be a key part of a sustainable solution to the pandemic’s consequences. Economic community matters even more in the coronavirus era, and Southeast Asia could well show the way.

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