Recovery from the crisis needs collaboration and forward-looking perspective: APEC head

Interview conducted by Firoz Abdul Hamid and Jeremiah Capacillo

Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria, executive director of the APEC Secretariat. Courtesy of APEC Malaysia 2020.

Hosting the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum is a daunting task for any country, even more so during a pandemic. This year, it’s Malaysia’s turn to organise the event in August.

We spoke to Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria, executive director of the APEC Secretariat based in Singapore, who shared her thoughts on how Malaysia fares in its hosting duties, the importance of free trade in these uncertain times and how the region’s economy will be able bounce back from the Covid-19 crisis.

Investvine: Last May, Malaysia successfully led the very first two APEC virtual meetings. How did you make sure everything flowed smoothly? Are there any challenges you foresee in this year’s APEC meetings, given the pandemic?

Sta Maria: Malaysia as the host country made sure that the work of APEC continues despite the pandemic and limitations to hold physical meetings. With cooperation and support from member economies, the past virtual meetings went smoothly. We prepared in advance, did many tests beforehand and adapted our operational guidelines to virtual formats.

In February, when Covid-19 was still an epidemic, Malaysia had successfully hosted the first set of technical meetings and meetings of senior officials in Putrajaya by implementing a high standard of safety measures.

Coordination between hosts, member economies and the APEC Secretariat is even more critical now that we are faced with uncertainties. Malaysia is, by far, the first APEC host economy to host both physical and virtual meetings. That gives Malaysia the edge to adjust and adapt to developing circumstances whenever it is needed.

Courtesy of APEC Malaysia 2020

Given current apprehensions regarding international travel, are there plans to resume in-person meetings and workshops for the remainder of APEC 2020? If so, what social distancing measures will be implemented?

Uncertainty remains. The safety and the health of delegates and Malaysians are of utmost importance. Malaysia, as the host of APEC 2020, is leading the work forward for APEC this year by optimising technology and arranging virtual meetings. The APEC Secretariat stands ready to support Malaysia whether meetings are held virtually or if decisions are taken later for entirely physical meetings. We will have to wait and see what the arrangements will be for the next meetings. APEC is working closely with health agencies around the region, including with the World Health Organisation, and will follow their advice carefully.

What post-pandemic challenges does Asia-Pacific face that might affect free trade? Were there any discussions during the meetings on how to address this?

Every government hit by the pandemic is waging a two-front war: combating the spread of the virus and fighting its socioeconomic effects. To contain the pandemic and limit suffering is the immediate, undeniable priority. Many have enacted extraordinary efforts to identify and treat those infected.

“Coordination between hosts, member economies and the APEC Secretariat is even more critical now that we are faced with uncertainties”

It is clear that restrictions have an impact on the economy. Managing this front requires greater cross-border collaboration and a forward-looking perspective. Even a short economic shutdown can translate into job losses and increase in poverty that could have a lingering impact beyond the short-term. The longer this lockdown is necessary – and we do not know how long it will be -, the more thought must be put into hastening recovery afterward.

APEC’s work is mainly focused on enabling smooth flow of goods, services, investment and people across the region, which will contribute to economic growth and prosperity. The work in this area continues. Given the current pandemic and the health and economic crises we are facing, members are discussing efforts for recovery, how we can ensure, for example, the smooth flow of essential goods, including staple foods and medical goods.

This 2020, the Asia-Pacific region expects to post a 2.7-per cent decline in economic growth. Given this, have the objectives and priorities of the 2020 summit evolved?

It is impossible to talk about growth when people are struggling to secure livelihoods. We need to focus on recovery. Sharing information and best practices are encouraged so that members can learn from each other.

Should we start viewing economic growth through a new lens post-pandemic? What areas of growth should APEC focus on in your view?

We all agree that ensuring that we have a sound healthcare system is crucial for moving forward. For example, having a pandemic checklist or respective toolkit will help us prepare for future health emergencies.

“It is clear that restrictions have an impact on the economy. Managing this front requires greater cross-border collaboration and a forward-looking perspective”

We need to have a risk-management mindset for looking at economy and trade. The pandemic has also shown the importance of technology, particularly the digital economy. Many small businesses around the world have shut their shops. Some are dealing with it by moving their businesses online. Companies are forced to enable telecommuting and work-from-home, and workers have to adapt to this new lifestyle.

We might need to look at trade differently in the future and accelerate our work around the digital economy through the recently established APEC Digital Economy Steering Group.

In your view, how long will it take until the Asia-Pacific region will have fully recovered from the Covid-19 economic fallout? Are there any long-term measures to aid and stabilise this recovery?

This is the million-dollar question. The focus for us now is to ensure we keep open lines of communication between member economies. A forum like APEC helps encourage discussion and foster multilateral cooperation, which will be the key to recovery. The more we cooperate, the faster we can reach recovery.

Member economies have rolled out a variety of stimulus and relief measures to help curb the impact of this pandemic. However, additional interventions involving deeper multilateral commitments are likely required. Economies can agree to remove measures hindering supply chains vital to the production and distribution of medical products and equipment.

They can also commit to continuing free trade and investment and to avoiding new protectionist measures, which may impede the post-pandemic rebound.


To reinvigorate the economy, disrupted supply chains will have to be reconnected and made more resilient, through digital innovation and business continuity planning, for example. This will require not only collaboration between governments, but also with the private sector with its culture of innovation and enterprise.

On May 15, the APEC Tourism Working Group held a virtual meeting to discuss the COVID-19 economic impact. What measures were proposed to support and aid the ailing tourism industry?

The travel and tourism sector employs 57.5 million people in the APEC region and contributes $1.5 trillion to the global gross domestic product (GDP). There are 470 international airports in APEC economies, facilitating business and leisure travel. The scale of the industry’s contribution to the economy makes it an important driver of growth for the region.

Work in promoting sustainable and inclusive tourism within APEC is underway. We’re aligning policies among member economies to facilitate future travel and are improving coordination mechanisms. We aim to bolster efforts in strengthening the resiliency of tourism by incorporating risk and emergency management measures, and we’re in the process of reviewing the existing work plans and goals, to ensure they will conform to the new normal.

The group will also bolster efforts in strengthening the resiliency of tourism by incorporating risk and emergency management measures, enhancing information flow for sharing best practices and encouraging more collaboration.

What other industries in the region are significantly affected by the pandemic? And what courses of action will be implemented to help keep them afloat?

As noted, among major industries, travel and tourism has been hit the hardest by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. It was the first to suffer and will probably be among the last to recover. In the APEC region, tourism contributes to around 2.9 per cent of regional GDP, as well as 3.8 per cent of overall employment. Travel restrictions are still in place, therefore the impact to the tourism, aviation and hospitality industry will be much more significant.

“It is impossible to talk about growth when people are struggling to secure livelihoods. We need to focus on recovery”

We are seeing some APEC member economies start to discuss about developing “travel bubbles.” This is an encouraging concept as some economies reported fewer and fewer cases of domestic infections. Recovery for some economies could come faster than we expected.

There are many predictions about the effects of this pandemic, including whether it will reverse globalisation and erode trust in global supply chains. This period of uncertainty should be looked upon as an opportunity to strengthen the systems that we have grown to rely on so much over the years and more so now during a crisis.

This could mean setting clear-cut standards and comprehensive security programmes to build more resilient supply chains that facilitate the steady flow of medicine, vaccines and personal protective equipment. Done right, these measures will strengthen the credibility and transparency of these supply chains. Positive changes of this sort will go a long way toward galvanising trust in our system, processes and procedures. Then, we can be in a constant state of preparedness in the event of future health crises.

“The APEC Small and Medium Enterprises Working Group has been promoting initiatives to help entrepreneurs and SMEs get easier access to financing, to international markets as well as to the digital economy”

APEC has a number of tools in place that can help economies find such solutions. Specifically, a supply chain security toolkit exists to set protocols and serves as a roadmap for the promotion of global medical product quality and supply chain security.

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have also borne the brunt of the economic effects of Covid-19. Larger corporations have a better chance at emerging from this prolonged uncertainty. SMEs may have problems keeping afloat. They are especially vulnerable due to their tighter cash flows and reduced access to financing. They need to continue to pay rental fees, utilities, wages and other costs amid the plunge in customer demand.

There is a particular need for policymakers to tide them over. The APEC Small and Medium Enterprises Working Group has been promoting initiatives to help entrepreneurs and SMEs get easier access to financing and to international markets, as well as to the digital economy even before the pandemic. The onset of Covid-19 highlights the importance of intensifying these efforts. Many APEC economies have made early announcements when lockdowns started laying out support being extended to SMEs during this period, such as low-interest loans, moratoriums on rental and utilities, wage subsidies and tax deferrals.

Courtesy of APEC Malaysia 2020

The Trans-Pacific Partnership has been a much-debated topic, and as former secretary-general in the ministry of international trade and industry in Malaysia you once led many of these discussions and negotiations. Where is this at now and are those models you negotiated still relevant in this new climate?

A multilateral approach to trade furthers APEC’s regional economic integration agenda. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership brings benefits to consumers. But Malaysia still has not decided to ratify the agreement. In order to do this, Malaysia has to go through a process of amending a number of their laws and regulations. Until then, Malaysia cannot ratify this trade pact.

What are your views on the Asia-Pacific region to relax their trade policy especially with regard to food security and medical goods?

In most APEC economies, there’s much room to improve the way tariffs are applied to medical goods. There’s an apparent imbalance here because while APEC member economies apply low tariffs on medicine and medical equipment with most trading partners, they likewise impose higher tariff rates on medical supplies and personal protective equipment. This is particularly harmful to people and patients because access to personal protective equipment and medical supplies are of prime importance given the current challenges presented by wide-scale lockdowns and social distancing measures and the large inflow of patients requiring medical attention.

“It is important that recovery plans after the pandemic not only improve public health care measures, but also build environmental sustainability”

The APEC region’s food security environment is in better shape today compared to the global food crisis of 2007 and 2008. APEC’s collective stock-to-use ratios for maize, rice and wheat has doubled since then. However, only less than one-third of APEC economies improved their rice and wheat ratios, and more than half of APEC economies currently have their maize stocks-to-use ratios at low levels at below ten per cent. This reinforces the need to keep open trade policies as a tool to improve food stocks during this pandemic.

In your opinion, how urgent are environmental and sustainability concerns in a pandemic-hit world? Do these agendas still rank high on the priority list for APEC 2020?

Sustainable growth has been high on the APEC agenda for a few years. In fact, one of Malaysia’s priorities this year is the programme of “Driving Innovative Sustainability.” It is important that recovery plans after the pandemic not only improve public health care measures, but also build environmental sustainability.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the waste crisis. Production surpluses of food are often dumped, single-use items have become prevalent and use of food takeaway packaging has skyrocketed due to the lockdowns. Nevertheless, the pandemic has also given us an opportunity to rethink our ways. We cannot go back to business as usual. Continuing to deal with each impending crisis with the same unsustainable economic model is a recipe for disaster.

While short-term fiscal measures will help soften the impact, long-term shocks to the system will continue to test our capacity. Threats to the environment are far more permanent and deep, hence sustainability strategies for the future should not take a back seat despite the challenges posed by Covid-19.

Moving forward, given 2020’s economic and political turmoil, what goals and objectives do you think should APEC 2021 address?

New Zealand, as the host of APEC 2021, will announce its theme and priorities to guide APEC’s work at the beginning of its host year. The last few years have made clear that the digital economy, increasing participation of women and vulnerable communities in the economy and sustainable growth continue to be integrated in most of the technical work of APEC. We need to ensure the continuity of APEC’s work from one year to another. In addition, job security and employment issues, structural reforms and health care systems will also dominate our priorities moving forward.



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Interview conducted by Firoz Abdul Hamid and Jeremiah Capacillo Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria, executive director of the APEC Secretariat. Courtesy of APEC Malaysia 2020. Hosting the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum is a daunting task for any country, even more so during a pandemic. This year, it's Malaysia's turn to organise the event in August. We spoke to Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria, executive director of the APEC Secretariat based in Singapore, who shared her thoughts on how Malaysia fares in its hosting duties, the importance of free trade in these uncertain times and how the region’s economy will be...

Interview conducted by Firoz Abdul Hamid and Jeremiah Capacillo

Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria, executive director of the APEC Secretariat. Courtesy of APEC Malaysia 2020.

Hosting the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum is a daunting task for any country, even more so during a pandemic. This year, it’s Malaysia’s turn to organise the event in August.

We spoke to Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria, executive director of the APEC Secretariat based in Singapore, who shared her thoughts on how Malaysia fares in its hosting duties, the importance of free trade in these uncertain times and how the region’s economy will be able bounce back from the Covid-19 crisis.

Investvine: Last May, Malaysia successfully led the very first two APEC virtual meetings. How did you make sure everything flowed smoothly? Are there any challenges you foresee in this year’s APEC meetings, given the pandemic?

Sta Maria: Malaysia as the host country made sure that the work of APEC continues despite the pandemic and limitations to hold physical meetings. With cooperation and support from member economies, the past virtual meetings went smoothly. We prepared in advance, did many tests beforehand and adapted our operational guidelines to virtual formats.

In February, when Covid-19 was still an epidemic, Malaysia had successfully hosted the first set of technical meetings and meetings of senior officials in Putrajaya by implementing a high standard of safety measures.

Coordination between hosts, member economies and the APEC Secretariat is even more critical now that we are faced with uncertainties. Malaysia is, by far, the first APEC host economy to host both physical and virtual meetings. That gives Malaysia the edge to adjust and adapt to developing circumstances whenever it is needed.

Courtesy of APEC Malaysia 2020

Given current apprehensions regarding international travel, are there plans to resume in-person meetings and workshops for the remainder of APEC 2020? If so, what social distancing measures will be implemented?

Uncertainty remains. The safety and the health of delegates and Malaysians are of utmost importance. Malaysia, as the host of APEC 2020, is leading the work forward for APEC this year by optimising technology and arranging virtual meetings. The APEC Secretariat stands ready to support Malaysia whether meetings are held virtually or if decisions are taken later for entirely physical meetings. We will have to wait and see what the arrangements will be for the next meetings. APEC is working closely with health agencies around the region, including with the World Health Organisation, and will follow their advice carefully.

What post-pandemic challenges does Asia-Pacific face that might affect free trade? Were there any discussions during the meetings on how to address this?

Every government hit by the pandemic is waging a two-front war: combating the spread of the virus and fighting its socioeconomic effects. To contain the pandemic and limit suffering is the immediate, undeniable priority. Many have enacted extraordinary efforts to identify and treat those infected.

“Coordination between hosts, member economies and the APEC Secretariat is even more critical now that we are faced with uncertainties”

It is clear that restrictions have an impact on the economy. Managing this front requires greater cross-border collaboration and a forward-looking perspective. Even a short economic shutdown can translate into job losses and increase in poverty that could have a lingering impact beyond the short-term. The longer this lockdown is necessary – and we do not know how long it will be -, the more thought must be put into hastening recovery afterward.

APEC’s work is mainly focused on enabling smooth flow of goods, services, investment and people across the region, which will contribute to economic growth and prosperity. The work in this area continues. Given the current pandemic and the health and economic crises we are facing, members are discussing efforts for recovery, how we can ensure, for example, the smooth flow of essential goods, including staple foods and medical goods.

This 2020, the Asia-Pacific region expects to post a 2.7-per cent decline in economic growth. Given this, have the objectives and priorities of the 2020 summit evolved?

It is impossible to talk about growth when people are struggling to secure livelihoods. We need to focus on recovery. Sharing information and best practices are encouraged so that members can learn from each other.

Should we start viewing economic growth through a new lens post-pandemic? What areas of growth should APEC focus on in your view?

We all agree that ensuring that we have a sound healthcare system is crucial for moving forward. For example, having a pandemic checklist or respective toolkit will help us prepare for future health emergencies.

“It is clear that restrictions have an impact on the economy. Managing this front requires greater cross-border collaboration and a forward-looking perspective”

We need to have a risk-management mindset for looking at economy and trade. The pandemic has also shown the importance of technology, particularly the digital economy. Many small businesses around the world have shut their shops. Some are dealing with it by moving their businesses online. Companies are forced to enable telecommuting and work-from-home, and workers have to adapt to this new lifestyle.

We might need to look at trade differently in the future and accelerate our work around the digital economy through the recently established APEC Digital Economy Steering Group.

In your view, how long will it take until the Asia-Pacific region will have fully recovered from the Covid-19 economic fallout? Are there any long-term measures to aid and stabilise this recovery?

This is the million-dollar question. The focus for us now is to ensure we keep open lines of communication between member economies. A forum like APEC helps encourage discussion and foster multilateral cooperation, which will be the key to recovery. The more we cooperate, the faster we can reach recovery.

Member economies have rolled out a variety of stimulus and relief measures to help curb the impact of this pandemic. However, additional interventions involving deeper multilateral commitments are likely required. Economies can agree to remove measures hindering supply chains vital to the production and distribution of medical products and equipment.

They can also commit to continuing free trade and investment and to avoiding new protectionist measures, which may impede the post-pandemic rebound.


To reinvigorate the economy, disrupted supply chains will have to be reconnected and made more resilient, through digital innovation and business continuity planning, for example. This will require not only collaboration between governments, but also with the private sector with its culture of innovation and enterprise.

On May 15, the APEC Tourism Working Group held a virtual meeting to discuss the COVID-19 economic impact. What measures were proposed to support and aid the ailing tourism industry?

The travel and tourism sector employs 57.5 million people in the APEC region and contributes $1.5 trillion to the global gross domestic product (GDP). There are 470 international airports in APEC economies, facilitating business and leisure travel. The scale of the industry’s contribution to the economy makes it an important driver of growth for the region.

Work in promoting sustainable and inclusive tourism within APEC is underway. We’re aligning policies among member economies to facilitate future travel and are improving coordination mechanisms. We aim to bolster efforts in strengthening the resiliency of tourism by incorporating risk and emergency management measures, and we’re in the process of reviewing the existing work plans and goals, to ensure they will conform to the new normal.

The group will also bolster efforts in strengthening the resiliency of tourism by incorporating risk and emergency management measures, enhancing information flow for sharing best practices and encouraging more collaboration.

What other industries in the region are significantly affected by the pandemic? And what courses of action will be implemented to help keep them afloat?

As noted, among major industries, travel and tourism has been hit the hardest by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. It was the first to suffer and will probably be among the last to recover. In the APEC region, tourism contributes to around 2.9 per cent of regional GDP, as well as 3.8 per cent of overall employment. Travel restrictions are still in place, therefore the impact to the tourism, aviation and hospitality industry will be much more significant.

“It is impossible to talk about growth when people are struggling to secure livelihoods. We need to focus on recovery”

We are seeing some APEC member economies start to discuss about developing “travel bubbles.” This is an encouraging concept as some economies reported fewer and fewer cases of domestic infections. Recovery for some economies could come faster than we expected.

There are many predictions about the effects of this pandemic, including whether it will reverse globalisation and erode trust in global supply chains. This period of uncertainty should be looked upon as an opportunity to strengthen the systems that we have grown to rely on so much over the years and more so now during a crisis.

This could mean setting clear-cut standards and comprehensive security programmes to build more resilient supply chains that facilitate the steady flow of medicine, vaccines and personal protective equipment. Done right, these measures will strengthen the credibility and transparency of these supply chains. Positive changes of this sort will go a long way toward galvanising trust in our system, processes and procedures. Then, we can be in a constant state of preparedness in the event of future health crises.

“The APEC Small and Medium Enterprises Working Group has been promoting initiatives to help entrepreneurs and SMEs get easier access to financing, to international markets as well as to the digital economy”

APEC has a number of tools in place that can help economies find such solutions. Specifically, a supply chain security toolkit exists to set protocols and serves as a roadmap for the promotion of global medical product quality and supply chain security.

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have also borne the brunt of the economic effects of Covid-19. Larger corporations have a better chance at emerging from this prolonged uncertainty. SMEs may have problems keeping afloat. They are especially vulnerable due to their tighter cash flows and reduced access to financing. They need to continue to pay rental fees, utilities, wages and other costs amid the plunge in customer demand.

There is a particular need for policymakers to tide them over. The APEC Small and Medium Enterprises Working Group has been promoting initiatives to help entrepreneurs and SMEs get easier access to financing and to international markets, as well as to the digital economy even before the pandemic. The onset of Covid-19 highlights the importance of intensifying these efforts. Many APEC economies have made early announcements when lockdowns started laying out support being extended to SMEs during this period, such as low-interest loans, moratoriums on rental and utilities, wage subsidies and tax deferrals.

Courtesy of APEC Malaysia 2020

The Trans-Pacific Partnership has been a much-debated topic, and as former secretary-general in the ministry of international trade and industry in Malaysia you once led many of these discussions and negotiations. Where is this at now and are those models you negotiated still relevant in this new climate?

A multilateral approach to trade furthers APEC’s regional economic integration agenda. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership brings benefits to consumers. But Malaysia still has not decided to ratify the agreement. In order to do this, Malaysia has to go through a process of amending a number of their laws and regulations. Until then, Malaysia cannot ratify this trade pact.

What are your views on the Asia-Pacific region to relax their trade policy especially with regard to food security and medical goods?

In most APEC economies, there’s much room to improve the way tariffs are applied to medical goods. There’s an apparent imbalance here because while APEC member economies apply low tariffs on medicine and medical equipment with most trading partners, they likewise impose higher tariff rates on medical supplies and personal protective equipment. This is particularly harmful to people and patients because access to personal protective equipment and medical supplies are of prime importance given the current challenges presented by wide-scale lockdowns and social distancing measures and the large inflow of patients requiring medical attention.

“It is important that recovery plans after the pandemic not only improve public health care measures, but also build environmental sustainability”

The APEC region’s food security environment is in better shape today compared to the global food crisis of 2007 and 2008. APEC’s collective stock-to-use ratios for maize, rice and wheat has doubled since then. However, only less than one-third of APEC economies improved their rice and wheat ratios, and more than half of APEC economies currently have their maize stocks-to-use ratios at low levels at below ten per cent. This reinforces the need to keep open trade policies as a tool to improve food stocks during this pandemic.

In your opinion, how urgent are environmental and sustainability concerns in a pandemic-hit world? Do these agendas still rank high on the priority list for APEC 2020?

Sustainable growth has been high on the APEC agenda for a few years. In fact, one of Malaysia’s priorities this year is the programme of “Driving Innovative Sustainability.” It is important that recovery plans after the pandemic not only improve public health care measures, but also build environmental sustainability.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the waste crisis. Production surpluses of food are often dumped, single-use items have become prevalent and use of food takeaway packaging has skyrocketed due to the lockdowns. Nevertheless, the pandemic has also given us an opportunity to rethink our ways. We cannot go back to business as usual. Continuing to deal with each impending crisis with the same unsustainable economic model is a recipe for disaster.

While short-term fiscal measures will help soften the impact, long-term shocks to the system will continue to test our capacity. Threats to the environment are far more permanent and deep, hence sustainability strategies for the future should not take a back seat despite the challenges posed by Covid-19.

Moving forward, given 2020’s economic and political turmoil, what goals and objectives do you think should APEC 2021 address?

New Zealand, as the host of APEC 2021, will announce its theme and priorities to guide APEC’s work at the beginning of its host year. The last few years have made clear that the digital economy, increasing participation of women and vulnerable communities in the economy and sustainable growth continue to be integrated in most of the technical work of APEC. We need to ensure the continuity of APEC’s work from one year to another. In addition, job security and employment issues, structural reforms and health care systems will also dominate our priorities moving forward.



Support ASEAN news

Investvine has been a consistent voice in ASEAN news for more than a decade. From breaking news to exclusive interviews with key ASEAN leaders, we have brought you factual and engaging reports – the stories that matter, free of charge.

Like many news organisations, we are striving to survive in an age of reduced advertising and biased journalism. Our mission is to rise above today’s challenges and chart tomorrow’s world with clear, dependable reporting.

Support us now with a donation of your choosing. Your contribution will help us shine a light on important ASEAN stories, reach more people and lift the manifold voices of this dynamic, influential region.

$
Personal Info

Donation Total: $10.00

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