23 April 2020, Colombo, Sri Lanka: COVID-19 is a global pandemic that has affected many countries. It has infected over 2.6 million people and resulted in over 180,000 deaths as of 23 April 2020. In Sri Lanka, since the diagnosis of its first patient in late January, by mid-April 2020, a total of 330 confirmed patients and 7 deaths have been reported.

Understandably the priority has been to manage the health emergency and cognizance must be stronger on the knock-on impacts globally, regionally and nationally which will threaten a follow-on national, socio-economic crisis.

The Government has announced various stimulus/relief measures. However, a comprehensive analysis on the ‘new normals’ is needed to understand the socioeconomic impacts and recovery needs of the crisis. This will help design a ‘whole of society’ road map for recovery which would strengthen national development planning institutions, and leverage youth entrepreneurs to formulate innovative solutions to help rebuild the economy.

To better understand how Sri Lanka can navigate these ‘new normals’, a multistakeholder high-level virtual dialogue was jointly convened by the the Resident Coordinator’s Office of the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP),  and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Sri Lanka on 23 April 2020.

Speaking at the opening of the dialogue, Mr. Robert Juhkam, Resident Representative of UNDP in Sri Lanka stated: “Post-COVID-19 is not about building 'back' better. It is about building 'forward' with more innovation at the forefront of our work”.

In line with this, Ms. Hanaa Singer, Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Sri Lanka emphasized the importance of social protection by “making macroeconomic policies work for the vulnerable”, thereby stressing the significance of “innovative financing”.

Also speaking at the opening session, Prof. W.D. Lakshman, Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka welcomed today’s discussion and stated, “During the crisis, using all available resources, the Government has worked very hard to contain the virus – more so than most affected countries. This Dialogue is indeed very welcome which is the first step to convening several stakeholders to design holistic solutions.”

Drawing attention to the concept of ‘new normals’ Ms. Faiza Effendi, Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP in Sri Lanka stated that the pandemic was “demonstrating to us the emergence of a ‘new normal’ and is forcing us to look at a new social contract which will focus on reaching the most vulnerable.”

Emphasizing the need for a more digital approach, Mr. Shiran Fernando, Chief Economist, Ceylon Chamber of Commerce urged the private sector to look at ways to fully digitize operations. “Once we get through this recovery phase of COVID-19, we shouldn’t go back to business as usual. We must be able to embrace the new normal.”

Going into this ‘new normal’ however, requires all businesses to adapt to the new environment. As Mr. Mevan Peiris, Head of Operations at PickMe Food stated: “We need to reinvent business processes and labour mobility is key.” In a context where many are forced to work from home, those in the informal sectors are economically hit the worst. As Ms. Simrin Singh, Country Director of the International Labour Organization for Sri Lanka and the Maldives stated, “81% of the workforce globally has been affected due to COVID-19 - women workers in particular.  We need to design solutions that keep the payroll going.” This also makes more families vulnerable and draws them deeper into poverty. “This can have a huge impact on children. Therefore, we must come up with social protection schemes that are strategic and inclusive”, highlighted Mr. Tim Sutton, Representative of UNICEF in Sri Lanka. Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, General Secretary of Sarvodaya echoed this by calling for solutions that have a whole of society approach.

The crisis is also expected to have significant impact on the country’s SDG pathways, with the crisis pushing Sri Lanka into a lower trajectory. Helping Sri Lanka avoid ‘backsliding’ in terms of SDGs is a key challenge. As Brian Chin, Social Sector Economist from the Asian Development Bank stated, “We need to use big data to better understand the impacts of COVID-19 and the extent of its impact”.

Facilitating the discussion around the need to have a whole of society approach, Mr. Dilhan Fernando, Chairman of the Global Compact Network Ceylon stated, “Peacebuilding, food security and inequality - these are key issues that we need to look at. Understanding the significance of the agriculture sector of Sri lanka is essential and not to mention the lives involved. They have always been on the frontlines of issues due to climate change, and now they will confront more issues in a post COVID-19 context. If you look at the short term, what can the private sector do? We need to start by mobilizing goodwill. The private sector has a key role to play in inspiring young people; demonstration of leadership at every level is needed at this point.”

The dialogue saw the participation of several leading actors both in the public sector and the private sector including Dialog Axiata PLC, Dilmah, Global Compact, Hayleys, Hemas, Pickme, Unilever and Virtusa; fellow colleagues from ADB, IFC, ILO, IMF, IOM and World Bank; think tanks and academics from the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Munasinghe Institute of Development, University of Colombo and the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA); civil society organizations such as Sarvodaya and representatives from other bodies from the Sri Lanka Retailers Association, Employers Federation and Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

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