As we head into the Apec forum's grand finale — Leaders Week — it's already clear that New Zealand officials haven't let Covid-19 get in the way of delivering a highly productive year for APEC.
For Vangelis Vitalis, that challenge became a personal one last month when he was diagnosed with Covid-19 while on assignment in Europe, where he has had to stay and self-isolate.
But, as with the broader challenge he and his team have faced this year, it hasn't slowed him down.
"I've been a genuinely fine," Vitalis says, talking via a Zoom link from Brussels.
"I'm double-vaccinated. As far as I can tell I've had the mildest possible symptoms, like a bad flu for a couple of days and then I've been fine ever since."
Vitalis, whose formal Apec position is as senior officials' meeting chair, is one of New Zealand's most senior trade officials and is also chief negotiator for the Free Trade Agreement with the European Union.
Previously, he was the Chief Negotiator on the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and before that led negotiations on the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement and the Malaysia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (MNZFTA).
So while it was a personal inconvenience in terms of not getting home to see family, there is no shortage of work for him in Europe.
And the nature of this year's forum means it won't stop him working through the climactic final weeks of Apec 2021. "In terms of discharging my responsibilities as Apec chair there's no change at all, because of course we're doing it all virtually so it doesn't matter where you're doing it from," he says.
"I've already been chairing meetings, having bilateral sessions, having group meetings, even while I've been in isolation, and it's worked well."
Embracing technology and advances in digital communications has allowed New Zealand organisers to forge ahead with a full Apec programme despite the pandemic and its ever-changing restrictions and alert levels.
In fact, says Vitalis, it has enabled extra meetings and wider participation for many of the 21 member countries. For example, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has already hosted an informal leaders' summit.
The official leaders' summit is scheduled for the week of November 8.
The virtual set-up has also meant wider attendance of the working group meetings, with deeper representation across the member nations.
"It's never happened before in Apec that we've had two leaders' meetings in one year and, of course, the fact that we're doing it virtually has made that possible."
The year started with senior officials' meetings and progressed through a series of ministerial meetings — for trade, agriculture, economic development, Small and Medium Business Ministers and Women's Ministers and Finance Ministers.
That's paid off with rapid progress on the most pressing pandemic issues.
"The scar that has been left by Covid, across the region, is a really significant one," Vitalis says.
"So the first thing we wanted to do in our host year is respond to that. And not just respond to it with rhetorical flourishes, but actually do something practical."
He cites an impressive list of breakthroughs. "I'm pleased to say that 17 Apec members have already, before even we've concluded our year, lowered or eliminated the tariffs on vaccines and other essential central goods."
Another important step was an agreement to impose no new import restrictions, he says. "It's easy to forget that just over a year ago many economies or around the world were imposing export restrictions on PPE equipment, on vaccines supplies, the componentry and so on."
"Ever since the Trade Ministers statement, no new export restrictions have been imposed by any Apec member."
There had also been agreements to accelerate and simplify Customs procedures for medical supplies
"Before this, some of those products were taking literally weeks to cross the border, to get through the Customs procedures; that's now being achieved in a matter of hours."
Apec has also agreed to reduce and eliminate the barriers on services that are essential to the Covid response.
That sense of urgency around Covid has delivered remarkably swift progress, which should hopefully offer a blueprint for action as Apec moves forward to deal with big issues like climate change and inclusivity.
"What we also want to do is position the Apec region as a part of the solution for the recovery," Vitalis said.
"What now happens is we're very busy now preparing sort of two documents, two statements."
One is for the Apec Trade Ministers meeting. "And then there's also going to be the leader statement, a shorter crisper document that kind of draws together the big themes of our year."
The big piece of work and really the big deliverable for New Zealand this year is the implementation plan for the Putrajaya Vision 2040.
"Essentially, that's the work programme for Apec for the next 20 years, so it's for the 21 economies," Vitalis says.
That work programme covers three broad themes.
There's the classical trade, economics and investment theme.
Then there is sustainability and inclusion. And the third big theme is around digital transformation and innovation.
"Covid has thrown up into stark relief the challenges that indigenous populations face, " Vitalis says.
There's 271 million indigenous people across the Apec region. "We know that in the New Zealand economy between $60 and $70 billion is accounted for in the indigenous economy."
So issues like equity for indigenous people and for women were crucial to making economic progress.
There had been acknowledgement by Apec members of research showing that if you were to get real pay equity was achieved by 2030 across the region that would be the equivalent of adding an economy, the size of China.
"I think one of the big things that Apec has done this year was address how we actually move that forward," Vitalis says.
"Then there is sustainability. We're very conscious in our host year that we're hosting during the year that we're going to have COP 26 [the UN Climate Change conference currently under way in Glasgow]."
APEC has a terrific story on that, Vitalis says. "And so it should, Apec economies account for 60 per cent of the world's emissions."
For example Apec had set a target date of 2030 to double renewable energy use. Then there were also classical trade responses to climate change, which would target tariffs to reduce the cost of environmental goods, like solar panels.
"They have tariffs on them, ranging from 3 to 14 per cent across the region; eliminating those tariffs would mean that the product becomes cheaper."
Beyond that Apec was also hoping to this year begin work on identifying environmental services.
So Apec's Covid response is creating a blueprint for progress in other crucial areas, he says.
"What Apec has demonstrated is, unlike a trade agreement which takes five, six years to negotiate, you can use an institution like Apec in a very nimble way to respond to and be practical."
"We were handed a very challenging year to do this in. Covid, the geostrategic challenge that we all face, a very difficult year filled with uncertainty, rising protectionism internationally, all of those challenges were really real," Vitalis says.
"What we're able to do by hosting Apec, in the particular way that New Zealand chairs and hosts these events, was to show what's possible. How does this institution respond to a crisis, how does it convene people and focus on actual practical ways to address that."
"Apec was not found wanting. I'd love for us to take a little bit of the credit for that, and I do think Ministers and the Prime Minister should certainly get the credit for that," he says.
"But I think also perhaps most importantly, it was the fact that the 21 of us pulled together. That wasn't obvious at the start of the year, it was challenging."
He acknowledges there is disappointment that we weren't able to host all the member and world leaders in person. "I know the Prime Minister really regrets not, being able to welcome these world leaders to New Zealand; that would have been terrific and it would have been a great opportunity to showcase the country," Vitalis says. "But we are where we are. We were forced to adapt to circumstances. What's been really interesting to me is what you can actually achieve in a virtual setting."
There is now a model there for future Apec rounds which might involve a mix of virtual and real-life meetings.
"You might say, let's meet in person at the start of the year, let's do a virtual meeting in the middle of the year and let's do a hybrid at the end of the year or some mix of that," he says.
"Think of the carbon footprint that you reduce as a result of that."
"But also what I think is really important is the increased participation of member economies, in all parts of the Apec work programme in a way that we have not seen before, because it was just not possible."