The coronavirus pandemic will hit the most vulnerable in society and disadvantage the countries already lagging behind, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said yesterday.

For instance, the rise in female labour force participation could be set back, while a successful vaccine could remain unavailable in parts of the world for some time due to the challenges of manufacturing and distributing it on a large scale.

“So, don’t think of vaccines as a silver bullet,” Mr Tharman said at the opening session of this year’s Singapore Summit. “It requires a whole set of tools – quick and cheap testing, social distancing, people wearing a mask because it is the responsible thing to do, and the social protocols that have to become the norm in every civilised society.”

At the same time, Covid-19 will hopefully have brought about a greater recognition of the plight of the vulnerable across societies, he added. “There will be greater recognition and a greater desire to uplift the lives of those who are disadvantaged.”

The annual Singapore Summit, which examines global trends, went online this year due to Covid-19. Topics that will be discussed from today to Thursday evening include how the coronavirus has impacted global trade and the sustainability agenda.

In his dialogue moderated by conference chairman Ho Kwon Ping, Mr Tharman noted that the lowest-paid and most vulnerable segments of every society have been worst hit by the pandemic. Women, in particular, have been disadvantaged because they are disproportionately represented in the retail and food and beverage sectors, he said.

“And there is a risk that that rise in female labour force participation that we saw over many years will now go through some reversal, particularly among those at the lower end of the income ladder,” he said.

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On the global stage, the pandemic poses a risk to the developing world, he added. Over the last 30 years, a significant number of developing societies have started moving up the ladder and catching up.

But now, capital flows are going to be very discriminating, he said, meaning that the countries worst hit in terms of public health and being able to manage this crisis will find themselves at an even greater disadvantage. “So, we really may be getting a perfect storm, where the emerging world becomes submerging, outside of China.”

These countries are likely to be worst hit in terms of the economic fallout of Covid-19, their ability to re-equip their healthcare systems, and in education, where the pandemic has been a “huge setback for a generation”.

In these countries, young people may enter the workforce only to find little opportunity – a recipe for instability both within these societies, as well as the rest of the world, he said.

And even when a successful vaccine is developed, these inequalities will remain. “Manufacturing at scale and distributing at scale through the very cold chains required, minus 20 to minus 80 deg C, is going to be a huge challenge,” Mr Tharman said. “So, a large part of the world is not going to have access to that for quite a while.”



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