Covid-19 challenges Asean to act as one

The pandemic offers regional grouping a chance to leverage existing mechanisms and do more to help people of South-east Asia

The Covid-19 crisis is casting a long shadow over Asean and its member states.

The coronavirus has infected at least 7,846 people in South-east Asia, and claimed 231 lives region-wide, according to figures yesterday. These numbers continue to surge daily. Over the past week, Myanmar and Laos confirmed their first Covid-19 cases; the number of infections exceeded 1,000 in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, and over 2,000 in Malaysia; Singapore and Vietnam recorded high daily spikes from both overseas arrivals and community spread. The shortage of testing kits across the region means that people infected with the virus remain likely on the roam.

Beyond the loss of lives, the Covid-19 crisis has wreaked havoc on the region's economies from both the supply side and demand slump, breaking supply chains and upending almost all business activities. The tourism, travel and aviation sectors - vital economic engines for many Asean member states - have practically ground to a halt.


Amid all the devastation, how has Asean responded?

Since last month, its foreign ministers and defence ministers have discussed the outbreak and statements have been issued stressing the importance of "Asean solidarity and unity to effectively respond to challenges from the outbreak of Covid-19".

Asean foreign ministers also met their Chinese counterpart on Feb 20, committing to Asean-China joint emergency responses to Covid-19. Asean health sector officials have convened several video conferences, including with their Chinese, Japanese and South Korean counterparts under the Asean Plus Three framework, to exchange information and best practices on epidemic prevention and control, diagnosis and treatment. Another teleconference involving Asean senior officials in the sectors of foreign affairs, transport, finance, information, defence and immigration is scheduled for today, in a bid to muster a cross-sectoral coordinated approach among Asean member states.

Yet, responses by individual Asean member states in the early stages of the outbreak were disjointed and uneven. Singapore and Vietnam swiftly took actions with extensive contact tracing, clear and constant communication with the public, and locally developed test kits for early containment.

Meanwhile, the Jokowi administration's lack of transparency and inadequate appreciation of the enormity of the problem lulled Indonesia into complacency until the first week of this month. Malaysia likewise sprung into action only after a religious gathering late last month drawing around 16,000 people sent the virus far and wide, making the country South-east Asia's epicentre of Covid-19.

Not only was there hardly any unity of action across Asean, but the Covid-19 crisis also brought into sharper focus the geopolitical divide from within, especially on how to stem the virus spread while remaining in China's good books when its Hubei province was still the world's epicentre of the outbreak.

Singapore and Vietnam took a calibrated approach, imposing China travel bans while dispatching medical supplies assistance to the country. Other Asean countries, except Cambodia, have enacted travel restrictions to varying degrees. Cambodia was the outlier - its Prime Minister Hun Sen went to great lengths to downplay the problem. Cambodia remains the only South-east Asian country that maintains no travel restrictions with China, drawing quiet criticism within Asean. It is a problem because, given the extensive and relatively free movements of people in the region, any missing link damages Asean's ability to mount a collective defence against the spread of the disease.


Despite the Asean statements on solidarity in response to Covid-19, there is little coordinated action on the ground among the member states. Self-preservation is the order of the day as member states slammed shut borders and halted flights to and from Asean destinations, with little time to consult or coordinate with their neighbours. Malaysia's lockdown since March 18, for example, has affected more than 300,000 daily commuters and the supply of goods across the Causeway, disrupting both business and daily life in Singapore.

This is not to deny the legitimacy or urgency of the measures - governments in nation states owe a duty to safeguard the life and interests of their citizens, and the Sars-CoV-2 virus is a deadly threat to both.

What the haphazard Asean responses do show is that a cross-border, rapidly growing threat such as Covid-19 is a stress test like no other for regional groupings. And even for the more integrated European Union, the results have not been stellar.

Although some EU members have moved recently to offer help and ease the patient load from hard-pressed neighbours, the knee-jerk reaction from some member states initially was to keep scarce medical gear within their own borders despite pleas from hard-hit Italy for help from fellow EU members. Now the problem has gone on to objections from Germany and the Netherlands to pool mutual debt through "corona bonds" to help alleviate the economic impact of the crisis.


Asean members stand to gain collectively and individually from a more coordinated and collective response.

Given intra-regional interconnectedness, South-east Asia's resilience to the coronavirus is only as strong as its weakest link.

Emergency measures that keep nations isolated from one another may curb further virus-infected arrivals, but they do not necessarily secure effective treatment and alleviate the public health crisis afflicting every Asean member state, and on a collective level the South-east Asian region.

If all Asean members jointly put up a good fight in containing the disease, they could aid in a faster region-wide recovery and pave the way for a faster rebound of intra-Asean travel, trade and investments.

As South-east Asia is prone to natural disasters, Asean has built up its disaster response capacity. Its Disaster Emergency Logistics System with three strategic stockpiles in Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand allows for the swift provision of disaster relief items.

This capacity should be urgently extended to pandemic response, and Covid-19 medical supplies, such as face masks and test kits, added to Asean's emergency stockpiles. Even though that may be difficult in the present circumstances with shortages all round, Asean should seriously look to prioritise such a stockpile when the pandemic pressure subsides.

Also more could be done to "retool" several existing defence-related Asean mechanisms and facilities dealing with disaster response to supporting regional preparedness and responses to public health threats. These include the Asean Militaries Ready Group and the Asean Military Medical Centre based in Bangkok. Other disaster response protocols, including the One Asean, One Response guidelines, could be used as a template to adapt to health emergencies.


These regional standby arrangements would come in handy in the early phase of an outbreak in a limited locale. While there may be differences in the technicalities and political sensitivities of managing natural disasters and health emergencies, they both require "speed, scale and solidarity" in deploying assets and personnel to the affected country.

Asean can also make a difference in the ongoing crisis by ensuring timely sharing of information and coordination among its member states to facilitate the return of Asean nationals to their home countries as well as supporting those who get stranded because of lockdowns. For example, Singapore has provided accommodation support for Malaysian workers in the city-state affected by Malaysia's lockdown. Likewise, the Malaysian Embassy in Teheran recently helped evacuate Singaporeans from Iran, giving effect to the Asean guidelines on consular assistance to the nationals of other Asean members in times of crisis in third countries.

The gap between Asean talk and its tangible impact on the people in South-east Asian countries has long been a source of concern and criticism.

Asean should rise to the challenge and show critics that it has both the resolve and instruments to help its people in this pandemic. The unfolding Covid-19 crisis is a test of Asean's resilience and credibility. It is also through this trial that Vietnam must live up to the theme that it has set out for its chairmanship this year - a Cohesive and Responsive Asean.

• Hoang Thi Ha is lead researcher (political and security affairs) at the Asean Studies Centre, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2020, with the headline Covid-19 challenges Asean to act as one. Subscribe