The COVID-19 crisis is turning the globalized world on its head, putting ASEAN in uncharted waters like never before. As the pandemic rages on, risks and fears of infection are magnified by geographical proximity and regional connectivity – two fundamentals of the aspired ASEAN Community.
ASEAN multilateral cooperation comes to a standstill as borders are closed, travel restricted, flights grounded and conferences canceled. Following the postponement of the ASEAN-United Sates special summit, the ASEAN summit slated to be held in April in Vietnam has been rescheduled to June.
Yet, not all is lost. ASEAN can draw on the reservoir of its existing mechanisms, accumulative experience in fighting previous epidemics and the intrinsic values of good neighborliness and openness to chart its way forward.
ASEAN’s traditional response to emergency and crisis situations is to convene emergency meetings of ASEAN leaders or relevant ministers to discuss regional solutions. When the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) hit the region in 2003, ASEAN leaders met in Bangkok and rolled out coordinated measures to fight the disease.
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Many such measures still hold true for the COVID-19 pandemic, including transparency and exchange of information and experience, multisectoral and whole-of-government approach, and standardized procedures for departure and arrival screening at border crossings.
But the exponential contagious power of COVID-19 disabuses the organization of its usual interface platform. That leaves teleconferencing as the only option to keep ASEAN’s work up and running. ASEAN senior health officials have convened several video conferences, including with their Chinese, Japanese and South Korean counterparts under the ASEAN Plus Three framework, to exchange information on containment and mitigation measures and identify needs for technical support and medical supplies in some ASEAN countries.
An ASEAN-European Union ministerial video conference was held on March 20 to discuss both the immediate and long-term measures to combat the virus, including the importance to boost trade and investment when the pandemic subsides.
Videoconferencing is as much a necessity as an opportunity for ASEAN to resuscitate its otherwise half-hearted efforts to further utilize teleconferencing, even beyond COVID-19. While technological platforms for videoconferencing are now more available and affordable than a decade ago, ASEAN’s preference for interface meetings runs deep. One cannot imagine the organization as the hub of regional diplomacy without associating it with around 1,500 ASEAN-related meetings annually.
Yet, the experience of the past few months suggests that teleconferencing can be both cost-effective and effective, especially for technical meetings or in emergency situations. As the chair of ASEAN and in the face of the COVID-19 disruption, Vietnam should make full use of videoconferencing to keep ASEAN cohesive and responsive, in line with its chairmanship theme.
Things are changing fast with this pandemic, and ASEAN’s response must be nimble and timely. Thus, even if ASEAN leaders cannot see each other in person, they could, and should, teleconference to collaborate and coordinate national action and leverage ASEAN-related mechanisms in tackling this crisis.
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What is even more crucial than the established ASEAN mechanisms at this time of crisis is a sense of care for thy neighbor among member states. As regional governments are resorting to drastic self-isolating measures like travel bans and lockdowns to put the wellbeing of their peoples first, this sounds like an oxymoron. But it isn’t.
Given the interconnectedness within the region and a coronavirus spreading like wildfire, any laxity in local control can cascade into a region-wide outbreak. The Sri Pelaling Tablighi gathering in Kuala Lumpur, which
drew 16,000 participants in late February, not only made Malaysia the epicenter of the disease in Southeast Asia but also caused a spike in COVID-19 cases in neighboring Indonesia, Brunei, and even Vietnam.
The Malaysian government has since sprung into action. Its movement curbs, including border closures, have affected the movement of people and goods across the causeway with Singapore. It is, however, noteworthy that both countries have established a special working committee to manage the disruption caused by these emergency measures.
Much more can be done among ASEAN neighboring countries, the wellbeing of which is intertwined even as they are presently turning inward for self-preservation. There is a lot to be learned from each other’s experiences, for example Singapore’s extensive contact-tracing and Vietnam’s whole-of-society mobilization in fighting the pandemic. Both have committed to transparency through clear communication and regular updates for the public, including through tracing apps and leadership messaging, to win social trust and dispel misinformation.
Both have been able to locally develop COVID-19 test kits, with Vietnam even starting to export its own. Given the importance of extensive testing for early containment of the coronavirus spread, both countries should support other ASEAN members in this respect.
The COVID-19 crisis also holds some good lessons for ASEAN to step up regional preparedness and response to health hazards in the future. For example, ASEAN should consider developing a regional stockpile of medical supplies; expanding the work scope of the ASEAN defense sector on disaster management to include humanitarian assistance in health emergencies; and mobilizing resources and capacity building for its member states in developing a viable long-term public health strategy.
Moving forward, it is important that ASEAN countries adopt a long-term perspective on coping with COVID-19 and its manifold impacts. Regional and international cooperation contribute to effective containment, mitigation and treatment of the disease, especially through the sharing of the relevant medical data.
Amid the massive lockdowns and closures, the region must never lose sight of the spirit of openness to move forward.
Lead researcher for political and security affairs at ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.