By Kamal Malhotra*
In addition to carrying out its significant and important responsibilities as a Non-Permanent Member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council for the 2020-21 period and as the ASEAN Chair in 2020, Việt Nam has, so far, done remarkably well in responding to COVID-19 by deploying a series of early, proactive, consistent and effective strategies.
However, real challenges still remain, including on the socio-economic front and in terms of building back differently and better while staying on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN stands ready to continue to support Việt Nam as it seeks to meet these challenges and achieve its ‘new normal’.
Việt Nam had prepared well in advance for its heavy and challenging political responsibilities in the global arena in 2020.
In January, Việt Nam began its rare twin-responsibilities of being both a rotating non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (for 2020-21) and the ASEAN Chair for 2020 simultaneously.
The country was immediately thrust into the global spotlight while assuming the Presidency of the UN Security Council for the month of January for alphabetical reasons.
Leading the Security Council in its discussions and resolutions on such sensitive matters as the Libyan peace process, and continuing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, Việt Nam skillfully navigated challenging, tricky waters on the world stage.
The highlight of the month was an open debate in early January, presided by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Phạm Bình Minh, at which UN Member States reaffirmed their commitment to the UN Charter, and to an international order based on international law as the indispensable foundation of a more peaceful, prosperous and just world. The crux of the discussion was to emphasise the importance of multilateralism and global solidarity.
The message from this open debate at the Security Council chaired by Việt Nam resonates more than ever now, at the time of COVID-19. As Việt Nam was embarking on its ambitious goals at the regional and global levels, COVID-19 appeared in the country on January 23.
Việt Nam then sprang into action. Its early, proactive, consistent, robust, strategic and effective measures to contain two phases of the virus have, so far, resulted in less than 300 cases of confirmed infections, zero deaths, and over an 80 per cent recovery rate, despite sharing a long land border with China which was the original epicentre of COVID-19.
Nonetheless, the pandemic has been ruthless in its disruption of the global economy, and Việt Nam, which is significantly integrated into global value chains, has already experienced the initial impacts of this. Yet, Việt Nam thus far appears to have been able to largely flatten the epidemic curve without exhibiting a steep economic impact curve because of a combination of its effective measures with respect to the pandemic, the provision of a US$2.6 billion social protection cash package for vulnerable population groups, and a relatively quick, yet measured, return to near normal once the outbreak was largely contained last month.
I congratulate the people and the Government of Việt Nam on their tremendous achievement in responding to and addressing the crisis thus far. At the same time, I must emphasise that there are still many real challenges the country faces both immediately and in the coming months.
They include avoiding another significant wave of infections, minimising the severity of the negative economic impact, and kick-starting the socio-economic recovery to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, whilst taking care of the most vulnerable and leaving no one behind.
I would like to think that by leveraging its successful response so far, at least some of the challenges and difficulties caused by COVID-19 can be turned into real opportunities, through which Việt Nam, through a whole-of-political system and whole-of-society approach, transforms the crisis into a better future for its citizens, especially the most vulnerable, emerging as a leader at both regional and global levels in the post-COVID-19 world.
Allow me to focus on a few key priorities at this critical juncture. First, strengthening health systems needs to remain the top priority. The Government of Việt Nam is now better prepared for any eventuality regarding COVID-19 than it was in January, with its public health sector having performed impressively thus far. In light of the unpredictable nature of the virus, however, we must all remain vigilant and take all possible preventive measures.
While taking care of the crisis on the domestic front, Việt Nam has provided PPE and medical supplies to a number of countries, in particular in Europe, and also made a generous contribution to the WHO, which I have warmly welcomed.
There are many lessons from Việt Nam’s COVID-19 response which should be shared with the rest of the world on how to contain pandemics and infectious diseases based on both its previous SARS and now COVID-19 experiences. The WHO and the UN as a whole are prioritising sharing its good practices in this area.
Second, Việt Nam needs to prioritise both its socio-economic recovery and building back differently and better. Like in other parts of the world, the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 may be felt in Việt Nam for a long time. Since the country is about to score a victory over the second wave of COVID-19, the road to full socio-economic recovery should become the real focus in the immediate weeks and months.
In light of the disruptions in global supply chains and international trade, on which it significantly depends, Việt Nam could consider taking urgent system-wide measures, such as increasing financial support for domestic micro, small and medium enterprises to enable them to remain solvent and reduce unemployment. Priority should be placed on those that can provide both significant formal employment and domestic value-added backward linkages for key strategic global supply chains prioritising in green technologies and agricultural value-added industries in which Việt Nam has clear competitive advantages.
Consideration should also be given to temporary tax and fiscal measures which encourage employment and labour intensive public investment. It will be a major achievement if Việt Nam can continue to keep the epidemic curve flat whilst simultaneously avoiding a steep economic recession curve. This is a realistic possibility in its case which cannot be said for most countries in the world. If it is able to achieve this by end-2020, Việt Nam will once again show itself to be a regional and global leader.
All of this must be done whilst ensuring that the most vulnerable sections of society, who may have been hit hard in the last few months, are not further left behind. Crucially, this COVID-19 crisis cannot be allowed to further increase inequalities and reverse the progress Việt Nam has made over the last few decades to combat extreme poverty and advance gender equality. Together with the Government, the UN is also committed to continuing to push forward towards achieving Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, and ensuring that all Vietnamese people fully enjoy their fundamental rights.
In the medium- to long-term, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, Việt Nam will also need to respond to the non-COVID urgent crises which it faces, such as addressing the complex causes of drought and salt water intrusion in the Mekong Delta by enacting long-term sustainable development changes which mitigate the effects of climate change and move the country towards a more inclusive, renewable energy-based greener economy.
Based on the UN framework for the immediate socio-economic response to COVID-19, which was launched by the UN Deputy-Secretary-General in late April, the UN stands ready to make its wide array of expertise available to the Government and people of Việt Nam in support of their efforts to ‘build back better’ and bounce back strongly.
At the regional level, I have observed that Việt Nam is showing its keenness to lead ASEAN towards recovery and stability. As the ASEAN Chair, as soon as the impact of COVID-19 was felt, Việt Nam began leading a series of ASEAN meetings, and held a virtual ASEAN Summit and ASEAN Plus Three Summit on 14 April to strengthen regional cooperation, and more importantly, catalyse co-operation on the post-pandemic economic response and recovery. Specifically, a COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund for public health emergencies will be established under its leadership, and a regional stockpile of medical supplies will be set up for future epidemics.
Its role at the regional level builds on the second open debate at the UN Security Council Việt Nam presided over in late January. This focused on ASEAN-UN co-operation for the first time, including peaceful settlement of disputes, preventive diplomacy, disarmament, peacekeeping, counter-terrorism and maritime co-operation.
The debate touched on such issues as the East Sea (South China Sea) and the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, as well as the importance of the SDGs and their interlinkages with peace and security. Given its dual regional and global roles in 2020, and also because it appears to be coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic ahead of many other countries, Việt Nam is in a position to play a leading role both at regional and global levels, bringing synergy and cohesiveness between ASEAN and the UN in tackling some of the most critical and sensitive issues which intersect both levels.
This year, we are also celebrating the 75th anniversary of the UN. Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated more vividly than any other issue why we need global co-operation and solidarity anchored in the United Nations. The issue is not whether we need the UN, but how we can strengthen, and yes, reform it - to meet the unprecedented challenges of the 21st century. The UN Secretary-General is scheduled to visit Việt Nam in November to attend the ASEAN Summit and related summits.
I sincerely hope that the November visit will provide an opportunity for Việt Nam, ASEAN and the UN to strengthen their commitment to multilateralism and global solidarity in a tangible manner, reinforcing Việt Nam’s role in the region and allowing it to make even greater contributions to the rest of the world, given its rich experiences and many successes both recently and over the last few decades.
*Kamal Malhotra is UN resident co-ordinator in Việt Nam