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ASEAN Takes a United Stance against COVID-19

Date Published
April 17, 2020

Ten countries in Southeast Asia agree to work together to protect their populations from the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo credit: iStock/Tzido.

Southeast Asian leaders vowed to mount a coordinated offensive against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which has claimed lives and slowed down economies the world over.

A special ASEAN summit led by this year’s chair, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Viet Nam, was held via video conferencing on 14 April 2020. ASEAN, which stands for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is made up of 10 countries, which include BIMP-EAGA members: Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Philippines.

In the spirit of a united ASEAN

In their joint declaration, the leaders “emphasized the critical importance of a coherent, multi-sectoral, multi-stakeholder, and whole-of-ASEAN Community approach in ensuring a timely and effective response to the pandemic.”

All ASEAN countries have confirmed COVID-19 cases, totaling 22,661 as of 16 April 2020, according to a situation report from the World Health Organization (WHO). So far, Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, and Viet Nam have no fatalities due to the virus.

The pandemic has compelled governments in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world to put in place measures to curb the spread of the virus, such as restricting social gatherings and travel, lockdowns, and quarantines. But the measures have affected businesses and supply chains and resulted in loss of jobs and income, prompting governments to come out with economic stimulus packages.

Strengthen health cooperation

In their joint statement, ASEAN leaders agreed to give assistance and support to the nationals of ASEAN member states affected by the pandemic in each other’s country or in third countries. They will bolster public health systems by sharing best practices and information on vaccine and anti-viral medicine research and development, among others. They will work to provide medicines and medical supplies and equipment, and develop regional reserves of medical supplies for public health emergencies. They also agreed to strengthen national and regional epidemic preparedness and response using existing ASEAN emergency response networks.

Mitigate economic and social impacts

ASEAN is considered the world's seventh-largest economy with a population of around 633 million people as of 2015. To protect the well-being of populations and preserve economic gains over last decades, the leaders affirmed their commitment to take collective action and coordinate policies to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. This entails keeping markets open for trade and investment and enhancing cooperation to ensure food security and strengthening regional supply chains, especially for food, commodities, medicines, and medical supplies.

Assistance will also be given to businesses suffering from the impact of COVID-19, particularly micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises, and safety nets for citizens.

The leaders also stressed the importance of developing a post-pandemic recovery plan to restore ASEAN’s connectivity, tourism, and business and social activities, and prevent economic downturns.

Protect supply chains

They tasked Economic Ministers and Senior Economic Officials to explore ways to preserve supply chain connectivity, particularly of essential goods, including medical and food supplies, and ensure critical infrastructure for trade and trading routes remains open.

Finally, the leaders agreed to support the reallocation of funds and to encourage technical and financial support from ASEAN's partners to facilitate cooperation against COVID-19, including establishing the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund. They committed to work closely with WHO, partners, and the international community to stop the spread of the virus.

ASEAN Plus Three response

A meeting of ASEAN Plus Three was also held via video conferencing on the same day to outline a coordinated response to the pandemic. Plus Three countries refer to the People Republic of China (PRC), Japan, and the Republic of Korea (ROK). The PRC and ROK are among the countries that have slowed down or flattened the curve in COVID-19 infections.

The ASEAN Plus Three leaders agreed to strengthen the early warning system in the region for pandemics and other epidemic diseases; ensure adequate financing to contain the pandemic and protect people; and step up efforts to stabilize the manufacturing and supply of essential goods and services.

The leaders also agreed to enhance national and regional capacities to prepare for and respond to pandemics and in developing human resources and capacity for the public health sector.

Measures include sharing experiences and best practices, providing mutual technical support in disease prevention, containment, and control as well as clinical treatment of infected cases, and leveraging on digital technology and innovation to promote a science-based response to combat COVID-10.