Home Opinion The true strength of Asean lies in regional cooperation

The true strength of Asean lies in regional cooperation

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Two years since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, the world continues to battle the virus. Pandemics are characterised by the way actions taken by one country led to consequences for others. Therefore, internationally coordinated responses can provide greater benefits than each country pursuing its own self-interest.

The pandemic has exacted a heavy toll across the globe. The WHO South-East Asia region alone reported more than 56 million confirmed cases and over 760,000 deaths since March 2020. To control its direct impact and eventually end the pandemic, the global scientific community worked together to develop a vaccine in record time. However, as coping strategies and responses to Covid-19’s devastating impacts unravelled, global outlooks narrowed, and national self-interests took precedence. Gaps in multilateral cooperation on research and information-sharing, vaccine development and deployment hampered the speed and equity of global recovery. In the Global South, the impact of Covid-19 was compounded by weaker health systems and vaccine nationalism. To build resilience, there is a need for greater self-sufficiency and capacity-building.

Providing worldwide access to vaccines will be critical, leading to a global economic recovery. Allocating vaccines equitably has been a consistent challenge. Counteracting the limited access to vaccines, Gavi’s COVAX facility has provided much needed support to the Global South, particularly for the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean). 

By the end of 2021, the Gavi COVAX facility delivered 32 million doses of vaccines to eight of the 10 Asean member-States. Asean member-States also contributed to Gavi’s COVAX advanced market commitment (AMC) for the 2021 period with the Philippines contributing $100,000 for the 2021 cycle. Beyond COVAX, regional collaborations such as India’s Vaccine Maitri initiative and Asean’s Regional Strategic and Action Plan for Asean Vaccine Security and Self-Reliance 2021-2025 provided hope for a different pandemic recovery strategy based on solidarity.

Countries within the Asean region have comparative advantages and strengths that can be leveraged to build greater capacity and resilience to future health threats. Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam have strong vaccine-manufacturing capacity with homegrown capabilities. Singapore is the sixth most prolific country in the Asia-Pacific region for research output and has the capacity to invest in building the region’s research and development (R&D) landscape.

Solidarity is the key tenet of the South-South collaboration that enabled many least developed countries to obtain urgently needed medications, vaccines, and medical supplies during the pandemic. Asean’s centrality instils togetherness and cohesiveness among the member-States and has proven its merit during the pandemic. The forum has prior experience and learnings from managing SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009. As countries in the region begin to chart their course of recovery, Asean is well positioned to play a role in driving greater regional cooperation to help build back better. 

Existing structures and mechanisms such as the leaders’ declarations, platforms and commitments including the Asean agreement on disaster management and emergency response and the Asean Vaccine Safety and Self-Reliance can be leveraged to ease the process of knowledge- and technology-sharing. An exchange of intelligence, products and learnings can ensure that support is mobilised swiftly. For instance, during Covid-19, countries devised e-solutions to bridge gaps in delivery of services (digital platforms and models such as telemedicine, start-ups) and take load off the traditional health system.

By building on and harnessing the strengths of each Asean member-State, together these countries can advance toward resilience. As history has shown (with SARS and H1N1), the South East Asian region has experienced outbreaks. Beyond the region, Asean also has strong ties with its neighbours – India, China, Japan, and South Korea, and with other forums such as the G20. With the G-20 chairmanship in Asia for the next two years, Asean can provide a model for the world and other regions on the strength of South-South collaboration to build capacity. There is a saying in the Philippines – Matibay ang walis, palibhasa’y magkabigkis that translates to, “A broom is sturdy because its strands are tightly bound”. This holds a simple yet powerful message on the strength of a united approach. Asean was founded on a spirit of cooperation and collaboration, and today, this motto is going to carry the region toward strength, resilience, health, and prosperity—to build back better.

Ramon S Bagatsing Jr is ambassador of the Philippines to India 

The views expressed are personal

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