MANILA — The pandemic added 4.7 million more people to Southeast Asia’s most extreme poor in 2021, reversing gains made in fighting poverty, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said on Wednesday, while urging governments to take steps to boost economic growth.

The number of people in extreme poverty — defined as those living on less than $1.90 a day — was 24.3 million last year, or 3.7% of Southeast Asia’s collective 650 million population, the ADB said in a report.

Before the pandemic, figures for those in extreme poverty in Southeast Asia had been on the decline, with 14.9 million in 2019, down from 18 million in 2018 and 21.2 million in 2017.

“The pandemic has led to widespread unemployment, worsening inequality, and rising poverty levels, especially among women, younger workers, and the elderly in Southeast Asia,” said ADB President Masatsugu Asakawa.

Mr. Asakawa urged governments to improve health systems, streamline regulations to boost business competitiveness, invest in smart, green infrastructure and adopt technology to speed up growth.

The ADB said there were 9.3 million fewer employed workers in Southeast Asia in 2021 as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) curbs reduced economic activity, leaving millions without work.

Its 2021 growth forecast for Southeast Asia was 3.0%.

The region was projected to grow by 5.1% this year but the Omicron COVID-19 variant could cut its growth outlook by as much as 0.8 percentage point if it spreads further and triggers supply and demand shocks, the ADB said.

Ramesh Subramaniam, director-general at the ADB, said Southeast Asia’s growth outlook will be revised to reflect the impact of the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which he expected to be “manageable.”

“The challenge is going to be what does the medium term holds. Is this going to affect the region’s recovery from the pandemic and the fiscal challenges it will face?” Mr. Subramaniam said at the report’s launch.

“How can we make sure that any knock-on effects don’t become serious in the case of Southeast Asia?”

The conflict has forced Asia’s policy makers to rethink assumptions for 2022, with the risks of weak growth coupled with surging prices adding unwanted complexity to monetary setting plans. — Reuters