By any yardstick the 36th Asean Summit convened on Friday by Vietnam, the chair for 2020, was an unusual one. The opening ceremony consisted of the usual cultural performances courtesy of the host country, as well as the playing of the Asean anthem. Host Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was pictured against a backdrop of the Asean emblem and flags of its member-countries, but his nine other summit counterparts and their foreign ministers were not next to him but in their own offices, connected by video-link, after the coronavirus pandemic made travel unsafe. It was fitting, therefore, that issues like facing down Covid-19, vaccines and protecting economies from its ravages should have taken centre stage.
From Singapore's perspective, as laid out by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, three issues are paramount: Sharing technologies to contain the pandemic and prevent further waves of infection, working together as well as with external partners towards an affordable supply of medicines and vaccines, and preventing the virus from permanently damaging economies. Even though no credible vaccine has as yet come into view, the third is probably the most difficult challenge; the cratering of demand that has hit already-slowing economies, the corporate carnage that awaits as debt moratoriums are lifted, and mounting joblessness are poised to inflict a tremendous toll on Asian economies and societies.