Regional Lab: Systemic Implications of the COVID-19 Crisis

The pandemic has not only led to considerable losses in terms of health on a global scale but also caused unprecedented damage to the global economy and our social systems. It has emphasized the importance of solidarity, structural changes and strengthened international cooperation to tackle systemic challenges. The first FES regional geopolitics lab brought together stakeholders from across Southeast Asia.

The FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia and the FES Philippines Office jointly hosted the first regional lab under the FES programme Navigating the New Geopolitics of Asia and Global Order of Tomorrow. Facilitated by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy's Executive Education team, the workshop with participants from Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Timor-Leste, Thailand and Vietnam took stock of the current state of affairs and developed strategic options and policy recommendations for the future. 


Regional trade and supply chains

The lab explored the pandemic-induced changes in regional and global supply chains and the opportunity they provide to build back better and create more inclusive and sustainable international trade arrangements that put workers’ rights at the centre. With geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts gaining momentum at rapid speed, trends such as decoupling, reshoring and nearshoring will require further examination. A paradigm shift from efficiency (‘just in time’) to resilience (‘just in case’) in the global economy is slowly evolving, especially with a view to making supply chains less vulnerable for strategic goods. Upholding ILO core conventions, promoting broader regional cooperation and prioritizing practical solidarity will be key ingredients for a human-centred economy of tomorrow.

Labour migration and social protection

The number of migrant workers in Southeast Asia remains high, impacting the development models of both countries of origin and destination in a changing geoeconomic environment. Border closures, social distancing measures and economic lockdowns left migrant workers in a particularly vulnerable position. Lab participants emphasized the need to have a transnational perspective to solve this challenge through better coordination on the regional level, social protection schemes and enhanced tripartite cooperation, including through the ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour.

Vaccine diplomacy and health security

The geopolitical weaponization of vaccines adds to the uncertainty felt regarding human security in a post-COVID world, especially in light of weakened multilateralism. Stretched public healthcare systems and an often inadequate infrastructure further exacerbate the challenge of health security. A steady supply of vaccines remains a major challenge towards achieving vaccine equity. Localizing production capacity is an immediate imperative along with de-monopolizing knowledge and technology needed to effectively fight the pandemic. A key discussion point in the lab was whether vaccine diplomacy impeded a collective international effort to fight the pandemic. Participants emphasized the merits of a truly multilateral effort in solving a challenge of such a global scale with a strong voice for the Global South.

Future of work

The pandemic has provided an opportunity to implement structural changes in the future of work and to promote socially just, inclusive, resilient, and green growth models. Automation and digitalization, and their consequences for jobs and social mobility, remain a pivotal question for the trajectories of societies across the region. Workplace digitalization and AI solutions, gig work facilitated by digital platforms and leaps in production robotics are continuously changing the world of work. The COVID-19 crisis has further accelerated these trends and exposed major fault lines. Addressing the increasing digital divide, not least with a view to promoting gender equality, and designing more inclusive and sustainable work environments with a reinforced role for trade unions were among the policy recommendations highlighted.

This regional lab greatly benefited from the expert insights and keynotes by Professor Mely Caballero-Anthony (President's Chair in International Relations and Security Studies, and Head, Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore), Farzana Nawaz (Consultant, South-East Asia Labour Rights, Laudes Foundation, Vietnam), Marja Paavilainen (Senior Programme Officer, ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok, Thailand) and Aayush Rathi (Senior Researcher, Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru, India).


Event summary compiled by Mekhla Jha, Research Intern, FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia.

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