Asia-Pacific business leaders called on their governments yesterday to work together much faster to respond to the SARS outbreak which, they warned, could be used as an "excuse for protectionism."
The APEC Business Advisory Council ended a four-day meeting in Tokyo yesterday. SARS, which has killed more than 600 people, mostly in Asia, dominated the agenda.
Delegates from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, which have been hardest hit by SARS, had to bring their health records to prove they were unaffected by the disease.
"I hesitated to come here because I feared I would be treated poorly," Jeffery Koo (
Viphandh Roengpithya, the founder of Thailand's Viptel Co, who heads the business arm of the 21-nation APEC forum, said SARS "cannot be used as an excuse for protectionism."
He said council would urge the region's trade ministers to weigh "the need for transparent and timely information in the fight against SARS, the need to streamline border controls while ensuring responsible and appropriate safeguards, and the need to strengthen regional capacity to respond to future crises."
The call for a coordinated response and other proposals will be contained in a report presented to a two-day meeting of APEC trade ministers starting in Kohn Kaen, Thailand on June 2.
Victor Fung, head of Hong Kong's airport authority, said the epidemic was forecast to depress the growth rate of SARS-affected economies by 1.0 to 1.5 percent in general terms with such "fundamental changes" as limits on the ability of businessmen to travel across borders.
"If it moves into the area of business protectionism, where the health issue is used as a barrier, the economic impact could be a lot more serious," said Fung, who headed the council subcommittee on trade and investment liberalization.
Andrina Lever, a Canadian business consultant, urged APEC leaders to communicate "much faster and much better" and put "some sort of a response mechanism in place" to fight SARS.
"Our economy is so fundamentally integrated now that what happens in one area can affect business dramatically in other economies that are not SARS-affected," said Lever, who heads the council subcomittee on "capacity building."
"Because SARS really did shake up the region, everything that was proceeding, we do have to respond very, very quickly," she said.
The council meeting agreed to work for "smoother" cross-border travel by businessmen in the region by working out "unified" anti-SARS criteria, said Nobuhiko Kawamoto, a senior advisor to Japan's Honda Motor Co.
"Different procedures, such as documentation and temperature measuring, are currently required in different places," he said.
Kawamoto heads the council's task force on trade and investment facilitation.
"There was a broad agreement that we should not be deflected by short-term adversities" from the ultimate APEC goal of free trade and investment, said Dryden Spring, chairman of Goodman Fielder New Zealand.