Exit the Rat, Enter the Ox! (A Losar Look Back on the Year that Was)

With the Year of the (Metal / Iron) Ox upon us, we take one last look at Asia’s winners and losers in the year that was.  In the departing Year of the Rat, who was up and who was down?

For Bhutan and elsewhere, there can certainly be no ignoring the COVID-19 but

thankfully, Bhutan has so far seen only about 858 confirmed cases and 1 death due to COVID-19, but vigilance remains essential.

Green shoots of hope for recovery also grow amidst unprecedented progress on vaccines and treatments, including through India’s providing of vaccines to Bhutan.

So, with Losar approaching, who was up and who was down in Asia in the departing Year of the Rat? Here’s our yearly assessment: 

Worst year: Asia’s poorest

Around the world, the poorest and most vulnerable have been hit hardest by COVID-19, according to the World Bank. This has been true too in Asia where the region’s most vulnerable have borne the brunt of a “triple shock” — the pandemic itself, the economic fallout from the containment measures, and the ensuing global recession. In many Asian nations, hunger has grown, and access to jobs, technology and education has shrunk amidst collapsing tourism and weakened exports. 

Across the Indo-Pacific, migrant workers in particular have suffered the consequences of economic lockdowns. And Bhutan has seen first hand the impact of a second national lockdown on small businesses as the Year of the Rat came to a close.

The Asian Development Bank now projects that the coronavirus could push 160 million more into poverty across Asia, with the region’s poverty rate increasing for the first time in 20 years, according to the World Bank. 

Bad year: WHO and Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus 

With China, the United States and the world facing a once-in-a-century health crisis, this last year should have been a year for the WHO to shine. Instead, the specialized U.N. health agency and its beleaguered director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus found themselves in a no-win situation facing accusations of not holding China accountable for its less than transparent handling of the coronavirus. 

Hidebound by the rules of bureaucracy and diplomacy, the WHO could say little amidst growing concerns over whether China was providing timely release of information. So too has the WHO been placed in a difficult situation when China allowed tens of millions of its citizens to travel during last year’s extended Lunar New Year holiday period, and as crackdowns continue on citizen journalists and whistleblowers.

Newly inaugurated U.S. President Joe Biden has since reversed his predecessor Donald Trump’s decision to pull the U.S.—the WHO’s largest donor—out of the organization. This turnaround is good news for the WHO, but all-in-all, the Year of the Rat was a decidedly bad year for WHO and Ghebreyesus. 

Mixed-year: Xi Jinping and the Belt and Road Initiative 

China President Xi Jinping’s successes so far in crushing COVID-19 at home and democracy protests in Hong Kong last year were tempered by growing pushback abroad against his much touted “Belt and Road Initiative.”  

This grand “One Belt One Road” infrastructure scheme launched in 2013 to connect some 70 countries with a “new Silk Road” of Chinese-financed ports, railways and highways, and other projects ran into increasing resistance amidst COVID-19 slowdowns and worries about debt owed to China.

Attitudes toward Xi and China have now reached new lows, according to a 2020 Pew Research survey field in 14 countries including Australia, the United States, and several Asian and European nations.

Good year: Asia’s e-commerce giants 

The e-commerce sector might still be nascent in Bhutan with greater awareness and clarity needed over existing e-commerce policies and guidelines. Yet, across the region, a diversity of Asia’s e-commerce giants found 2020 to be an emphatically good year. 

In China, e-commerce giants Alibaba and JD.com racked up a record $115 billion in sales on a single day. In India, both Amazon India and Flipkart are major e-commerce players. And a report from Google, Temasek Holdings and Bain & Company projects e-commerce in Southeast Asia to exceed US$100 billion by 2025, up from US$38 billion in 2019.  

Importantly, the Year of the Ox might also herald many a good year ahead as consumers build on new digital habits, from fintech to telemedicine. 

Best year: Tsai-Ing Wen and Jacinda Ardern 

Both women won landslide reelection this year, but that’s not all that President Tsai-Ing Wen of Taiwan and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand have in common. These two leaders led charges against COVID-19, instituting strict lockdown measures that prevented community transmission while also avoiding the most draconian practices adopted by mainland China. 

In late-January 2021, Taiwan with a population of about 24 million had reported just 889 cases and seven deaths to date. New Zealand with a population of about 5 million had recorded about 2,290 cases and 25 deaths. Arden has also remained unruffled during a live telecast in the midst of an earthquake, and continues to lead her nation forward amidst enduring climate change and terrorism worries. 

And when it comes to economic numbers, Tsai and the people and businesses of Taiwan may well be a role model.  By the end of last year, Taiwan’s 2020 economic growth looked to outpace much of Asia’s including that of mainland China—the world’s second largest economy— for the first time in decades.  

 So, in this most difficult of years, Best Year in Asia goes to a dynamic duo of decisive female leaders who are showing the way to a better year ahead. 

Losar Tashi Delek!

By Curtis S. Chin and Jose B. Collazo

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Jose B. Collazo, is a Southeast Asia analyst and project consultant at RiverPeak Group. Follow them on Twitter at @curtisschin and @josebcollazo. 

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