Foreign Minister of Indonesia
This week, the world saw the COVID-19 infection rate top 1.7 million, with more than 100,000 deaths globally. Although cases in ASEAN countries only account for 1 percent of worldwide cases, the numbers will likely increase as testing continues.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that this pandemic is far from over in the Asia-Pacific region. The specter of a new wave of infection is on the horizon if we do not act swiftly and collectively.
COVID-19 is not simply a health crisis. It is a humanitarian tragedy with devastating socio-economic implications. Our region is not immune to such predicament.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) projected that growth in the Southeast Asia region would drop to 1 percent in 2020. The economic fallout could drive an additional 11 million people in East Asia and the Pacific into poverty, according to the World Bank. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that the share of employment in sectors that were at a high risk of disruption due to COVID-19 in the Asia Pacific was as high as 37.9 percent. Meanwhile, the IMF said it was anticipating the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Therefore, there is no time to be complacent.
Proposed by Indonesia to respond to this urgent situation, ASEAN leaders held a special summit, followed by an ASEAN Plus Three Special Summit via video conference on Tuesday, aimed at bolstering regional coordination and response against COVID-19 and mitigating its socioeconomic impact on the region.
The ASEAN Summit is especially important as ASEAN countries had the opportunity to hear from China and South Korea, which were hit earlier by the virus and have shown results in “flattening the curve”.
These summits take place at a time whereby a collective regional response is highly needed. In both summits, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo addressed that urgency by underlining the importance of strengthening unity, solidarity, synergy and collaboration in the region.
From Indonesia’s perspective, our regional cooperation must be focused on four important areas.
First, suppressing further spread of COVID-19.
We all share the responsibility to ensure all countries in the region have the necessary support and capacity to prevent, detect, control and respond to the pandemic.
Concrete collaboration could make a big difference in terms of how many lives we could save. This could translate into joint development of an antivirus and vaccine for COVID-19, and capacity-building for medical professionals and healthcare workers, including through the ASEAN+3 Field Epidemiology Training Network (FETN). We should also consider developing a platform for private sectors’ involvement to support these efforts.
Equally important is intensifying exchange of information on the latest developments, best practices and lessons learned in real-time more regularly as some countries have shown positive signs in “flattening the curve”.
Breaking the chain of COVID-19 requires each country to prevent the virus from spreading beyond its borders. Therefore, during the ASEAN Summit, President Jokowi suggested that ASEAN develop a protocol for cross-border public health responses to help contact tracing and outbreak investigation, as an important element of ASEAN’s standard operating procedure for public health emergencies.
Additionally, Indonesia also welcomes the proposal to establish a COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund to scale up our efforts to contain COVID-19.
Second, preserving the sustainability of regional supply chains.
At this critical juncture, a steady supply of food, medicine and medical equipment are essential. Temporary restrictions on the movement of people should not restrict trade within the region.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stated that experience from the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa shows restrictions of movement and disease containment efforts affected food production and access. We certainly do not wish for this health crisis to spiral into a food security crisis. To avoid this calamity, countries in the region might consider the utilization of the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve (APTERR).
Indonesia remains committed to keeping its critical infrastructure for trade and trading routes open. In this respect, President Jokowi proposed that ASEAN adopt a special arrangement to ensure the unimpeded flow of essential goods during this outbreak.
Third, protecting our people.
As each ASEAN country adopts their own national measures to contain COVID-19, we must not lose sight of our commitment to assisting and protecting our nationals, particularly the vulnerable ones, in other ASEAN countries. Nearly 7 million workers migrate within ASEAN countries. I believe that they are at the heart of our community building process.
With more than 1 million Indonesians working in Singapore and Malaysia, I have been in close contact with my counterparts to ensure the protection of our migrant workers in their respective countries.
Fourth, mitigating economic consequences of COVID-19.
The two summits resulted in the commitment to boost confidence and improve the regional economy, including through policy stimulus and assistance for micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs).
President Jokowi called for the strengthening of existing mechanisms to support regional financial stability, such as the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office (AMRO) and Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization.
We must contribute to revitalizing international trade as a means to promote regional economic recovery. This includes instilling confidence in Southeast Asia as a trade and investment hub.
All in all, it is only by strengthening our unity and solidarity can the region win this battle against COVID-19.
It is in the DNA of ASEAN as one family to always stand ready to help each other. Now is the time to translate that into concrete actions to jointly fight this common challenge.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.