IMMEDIATELY after the issuance by the chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Coordinating Council of a statement of satisfaction about the ongoing efforts of individual Asean member states’ health sectors at proactive roles and timely actions, the Special Asean-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) was convened in Vientianne, Laos on Feb. 20, 2020, which proposed the following: 1) strengthening the coordination for joint disease prevention and control; 2) taking a long-term perspective and establishing long-lasting cooperation mechanisms; 3) nationally dealing with the pandemic and conquering panic; and 4) turning the crisis into an opportunity and foster new cooperation growth points.
Parallel to the meeting, clinical specialists from China and Asean countries held a video conference of exchanges on therapeutic plans and treatment experiences. Before the conclusion of the special meeting, the Chinese Foreign Affairs minister proposed a summit on the outbreak of Covid-19 for Chinese and Asean leaders to underscore regional cooperation.
Asean response to SARS outbreak
In that connection, worth recalling is the collective response of Asean to zoonotic diseases (which normally occur in animals, but can be transmitted to humans) in the recent past. The outbreaks of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) between 2002 and 2003, bird flu in 2004, and swine flu (H1N1) in 2009 not only raised issues of human security but also challenged animal health protection, the protection of biodiversity and ecosystems, and the pursuit of sustainable development vis-à-vis the chain of animal food production. The SARS outbreak claimed a number of lives in Thailand and Vietnam and affected other Asian countries, namely Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, China, Japan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Taiwan, raising fears of a pandemic.
Asean cooperated with the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health in formulating guidelines and taking measures to manage the outbreaks. The initiatives taken included vaccine production, stockpiling of medicines and making plans for disease containment.
Asean countries also coordinated their efforts through institutional linkages and partnerships among stakeholders in civil society and the private and public sectors. Some of the significant moves undertaken included those by the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) Task Force, the Asean Expert Group on Communicable Diseases and the Regional Framework for Control and Eradication of HPAI. The various initiatives and guidelines developed aimed at setting up a common approach to combating the problems.
The experience gained from the SARS and avian flu outbreaks made Asean well-prepared to tackle subsequent outbreaks of H1N1, which originated in Mexico. In May 2009, Asean health ministers met to discuss their response to the outbreak and a coordinating center was established by the Asean Secretariat to monitor developments related to H1N1 in the region. Immediately, the Asean Plus Three Dialogue Partners (China, Japan and South Korea) met in Bangkok.
Delegates at the meeting pledged solidarity and cooperation not only within the region, but also worldwide to prevent the spread of the disease. Among the measures discussed were enhancing the stockpiling of the medication for H1N1 and implementing the national pandemic plans that had been drafted for the avian flu and SARS outbreak.
The Asean Plus Three Partners expressed concern that most of the vaccine production was done in Europe and North America and was therefore inadequate to respond to a global pandemic, if ever. Japan decided it could donate to Asean’s existing stockpile 500,000 doses of anti-viral medicines, plus 750,000 sets of personal protection equipment to be shared across the region. Participants also agreed to put in place “exit screening” as a cross-border disease control strategy.
It is interesting to note that the threat of a pandemic drove Asean to act with dispatch with no less than 25 Asean legal instruments covering SARS, avian flu and swine flu. Possibly, Asean’s response to the zoonotic diseases was considered successful because most of the Asean region, as well as a few other countries, were affected. Moreover, economic stakes were beginning to be felt at the time.
Asean response vs Covid-19
As daily news reports about deaths and positive testings on the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) continue to rise (and as the African swine fever resulted in deaths and continuing culling of diseased hogs in many parts of the Philippines), more coordinated response at eliminating and controling emerging and reemerging infectious and communicable diseases need to be worked on by Asean as a regional aggrupation.
According to WHO, a pandemic is a worldwide spread of a new disease. Compared to an epidemic, a pandemic happens when epidemics become rampant in multiple countries and continents simultaneously.
More than a month ago, WHO declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” The latest from WHO is that we are experiencing a pandemic, as Covid-19 spreads across the world and countries should be ready to respond.
To control and contain the spread of Covid-19, many countries resorted to drastic containment measures including, among others, the lockdown of cities and towns; travel restrictions; health checks at airports, harbors and border crossings; and mandatory and self-quarantine. The consequences have been a slump in air travel, plunging stock markets, tumbling oil prices and cancellation of cultural and sporting events. Surveillance, quarantine and control zones became very important aspects of health legislation and enforcement. Countries where outbreaks originated have been stigmatized and their citizens subjected to xenophobic comments about their food and way of life.
Panic reigns, in fact. Some global technology firms, foreign airlines, auto parts production, food manufacture, retail chains, financial institutions and even schools have temporarily suspended operations.
Considering thus far the detrimental effects of Covid-19 on health, freedom of movement and the global economy, the Asean could help consolidate response and collective actions to stop the virus from spreading further. This could be done via internet and video conferencing if actual meetings are not feasible at this point in time.
Aside from individual Asean country response, Asean as a regional body could still work on a regional approach to control infectious diseases from wreaking havoc on the health system and economies of Asean countries. Sharing by Asean states could revolve around setting up confidential channels or collaborative networks through which governments can freely share information on emerging health risks or potential outbreaks as a means of strengthening a regional approach; good, timely and accurate public health information, awareness and education to avoid misinformation and panic; travel bans and disruption of economic activities should be supported by scientific evidence and data; medical supply chains, pharmacies, hospitals and drug manufacturers must fully understand and decide what supplies are actually needed; and sharing of anti-virus protocols in ships and airplanes, homes for the aged and prisons, among others, must be encouraged.
As in many real life situations, the old Chinese proverb, “A calamity is a time of great opportunity,” is applicable in the effort to subdue the mysterious and infectious Covid-19.