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Emerging Markets

UN: swine flu action must not neglect poor

The battle with swine flu means that Asian governments need to find ways to monitor poor and illegal migrant workers not covered by official health safety nets, a top UN official has advised

The battle with swine flu means that Asian governments need to find ways to monitor poor and illegal migrant workers not covered by official health safety nets, a top UN official has advised.

The first confirmed case of swine flu in Asia was reported in Hong Kong on Friday, and a case was reported in South Korea on Saturday. As Emerging Markets went to press, the virus had spread to 16 countries, while health agencies were saying that the strain may be less lethal than initially feared.

But Asian governments may fail to target those who work in the shadow economy or are too poor to have access to healthcare, warned Noeleen Heyzer, executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Unescap).

“There are a large number of undocumented workers in the region, who are very vulnerable because they do not have access to official healthcare”, she told Emerging Markets in an interview.

Parts of Asia are densely populated, and this raises the potential risk of a sudden surge in those infected as the virus spreads, she said.

Singapore’s finance minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, told investors in Bali that he feared a wave of further reported cases could sweep Asia. “It will be very hard to prevent a virus that is spreading globally from coming into our own countries. It is a matter of time ... we have to raise our guard,” he said.

Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan argued that the region is “now in good stead” to deal with the global outbreak, having had the experience of implementing health and safety procedures to combat the Sars virus in 2003 and avian influenza in 2004.

He said that southeast Asia governments have in total distributed 500,000 doses of the tamiflu vaccine, and that a further half a million doses are stockpiled in Singapore. However, Heyzer warned: “Usually those that have access to tamiflu are those that [already] have access to good healthcare,” while the poor and foreigners are generally overlooked by public authorities.

Developing economies are severely vulnerable to the impact of global infectious diseases, because of the negative impact on tourism and trade and the increased demand on domestic healthcare systems. The economic impact of the Sars virus in East and Southeast Asia was about $18 billion, or 0.6% of GDP in 2003, according to the ADB.

After initial fears that the swine flu virus could deter delegates from coming to the ADB meeting, bank officials and event organizers say the meeting to-date has been largely unaffected. Nevertheless, Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport is now on full alert and passengers entering from countries affected by swine flu are subject to special monitoring procedures.


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