Op-Ed: ASEAN’s Response to Covid-19 Pandemic

AKP Phnom Penh, June 16, 2020 —

The Covid-19 pandemic is the defining crisis of the century. It is testing the strength and resilience of humanity as well as the national and international governance systems.

The world is grappling with the devastating effects of the crisis. Whether nation-states survive, thrive or collapse will pretty much depend on how well they deal with the pandemic in order to save lives and livelihoods of their citizens.

Countries have taken various measures to contain and mitigate the pandemic outbreak. Some have effectively curbed the spread, some have failed. In some cases, public trust in the government is in deep decline.

In Southeast Asia, the national emergency responses and their effectiveness vary across the region, depending on political leadership and governance capacity, healthcare system, financial reserve, and the level of social resilience.

Crisis leadership matters the most in responding to the multiple systemic crises caused by Covid-19. Effective crisis leaders tend to bypass routine policy-making procedures and red tape in order to accelerate decision making processes.

Stakeholder consultation and partnership have proven to be more effective than government-alone policy response. Social trust and fabric are fundamental to the fight against the pandemic crisis.

In some Asean countries, the healthcare system has been overwhelmed in light of the surge of the infections. Testing and contact tracing capacity of some countries remain far limited. A regional commitment in creating an Asean’s common protocol and standard on testing and contact tracing is hence urgent.

Countries that do not have much financial reserve are facing mounting challenges in stabilising economic activities and jobs. In some cases, economic recession will lead to political and social instability.

The economic fallout from the pandemic is imminent. According to various forecasts, Asean economies are expected to experience lowest contraction rate in decades. Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia are badly hit. Vietnam and Myanmar are relatively less affected.

Facing such unprecedented crisis, Asean as an inter-governmental body has convened a series of sectoral meetings and leaders’ summit to exchange views and find common grounds for regional policy coordination. Although the policy coordination and actions on the ground remain limited, Asean has shown a leadership role in forging regional solidarity.

Under the Vietnam’s chairmanship of Asean this year, Covid-19 pandemic is high on the agenda. Amid the unfolding crisis and future uncertainties, it is even critical for Asean to maintain the momentum of building mutual understanding and consensus on the pandemic, strengthening regional emergency response and preparedness, sustaining regional supply chains and trade and investment flows, and promoting safe travel.

The 36th ASEAN summit, which will be held virtually on June 26, will be another important regional platform to further enhance the unity, cohesiveness and responsiveness of Asean. The Asean Respond Fund to Covid-19 pandemic is essential regional reserve fund to assist the member countries to mitigate the pandemic-driven social and economic risks.

Asean has also actively engaged external partners, especially under the framework of Asean Plus Three (APT), in mobilising resources and actions. Public-private partnership and a whole-of-society approach were stressed in the statement of the last APT Summit in April.

China in particular has offered remarkable assistance to Asean member countries and the Asean Secretariat in terms of information and knowledge sharing and the provision of medical supplies such face masks, personal protective equipment (PPE).

China has also sent eight medical expert teams to Cambodia, the Lao PDR, the Philippines, Myanmar and Malaysia and helped the Philippines and Myanmar set up testing labs to enhance the response capability of ASEAN.

Pandemic crisis has also contributed to the realisation of an Asean-China community of shared future, for they start to realise the increasingly complex interdependence and the common future.

Interestingly, China-Asean trade is resilient. The bilateral trade in goods recorded 6.1 percent growth in the first quarter of this year, exceeding US$140 billion, making Asean China’s largest trading partner for the first time.

Looking forward, Asean needs to do the following tasks in order to be more resilient and sustainable.

First, swiftly expanding and putting into practice the Covid-19 Asean Respond Fund. The fund should aim to assist the vulnerable groups in the region.

Second, creating a regional reserve centre of essential medical supplies for emergency response. So far, there is a regional rice reserve under the framework of the Asean Plus Three.

Third, pulling resources to strengthen the capacity of the healthcare system of the less developed Asean member countries such as Indonesia, Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Myanmar.

Fourth, creating an Asean mechanism to support digital transformation of the less developed economies in order to reduce the digital and development gap.

Fifth, deepening regional integration and connectivity, and enhancing open and inclusive multilateral system. Asean must stand firm on its core value and principle to fight against protectionism and unilateralism.

Sixth, amidst rising geopolitical rivalry between major powers being accentuated by the pandemic, Asean must stand tall and strong to protect the independence and neutrality of the organisation. Maintaining a stable equi-proximity will all major powers will bode well for the future of Asean.

By Chheang Vannarith

President of Asian Vision Institute (AVI)