The COVID New (Ab)Normal: Pandemic Response Driving ASEAN's Human Security Agenda
ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi
The Coronavirus 2019 disease (COVID-19) presents an unprecedented challenge to ASEAN. Although the ASEAN region has battled epidemics and pandemics such as the avian influenza A (H5N1), the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the H1N1 influenza and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in the past, none of these outbreaks has had the reach or caused the extent of devastation as COVID-19. The disease has grounded regional economies to an almost standstill, and caused severe disruptions to many aspects of social lives. Given ASEAN’s extensive interactions with and proximity to the source of the pandemic, the region was among the earliest to bear the brunt of the ravages of COVID-19.
Overview of ASEAN’s Response to COVID-19
ASEAN’s response to COVID-19 was swift and cohesive. Following the World Health Organization’s (WHO) declaration of the epidemic as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on January 30, 2020, ASEAN mobilized its resources and mechanisms to combat the virus. Within weeks of the disease outbreak, ASEAN issued The Chairman’s Statement on ASEAN Collective Response to the Outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019. The Statement embodies the spirit of solidarity and commitment by ASEAN Member States to manage the epidemic that would soon be declared a pandemic by the WHO on March 30, 2020. To spearhead ASEAN’s collective response, the ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group on Public Health Emergencies (ACCWG-PHE) was established and held its first meeting on March 31, 2020, with the ASEAN Secretary-General designated as the coordinator to facilitate a whole-of-Community and cross-pillar approach to address the threat of the pandemic.
ASEAN’s timely and comprehensive response to the pandemic which was ably led by Viet Nam as the ASEAN Chair had borne fruit. The number of confirmed cases and deaths in the ASEAN region were among the lowest compared to other geographical regions. As of August 11, the 10 ASEAN Member States had recorded 333,093 confirmed cases and 8,292 fatalities. This is a commendable achievement considering ASEAN houses 8.57 percent of the world’s population but only accounts for 1.67 percent of the world’s total reported COVID-19 infections. The region continues to remain vigilant against new outbreaks as it begins to re-open parts of the economy and steps into the uncharted waters of the “New Normal.”
To underscore the region’s strong political will for a responsive and cohesive regional approach toward the pandemic, ASEAN Leaders convened the Special ASEAN Summit on Coronavirus Disease 2019 on April 14, 2020. The Summit also broke new ground as the Leaders’ first virtual meeting which set the tone for ASEAN to continue its community-building efforts in a safe and medically responsible manner. Among other initiatives, the ASEAN Leaders endorsed the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund proposal, which was subsequently established at the 36th ASEAN Summit in June 2020. Separately, but not unrelated, the ASEAN Economic Ministers Meeting adopted the Hanoi Plan of Action on Strengthening ASEAN Economic Cooperation and Supply Chain Connectivity in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic on June 6, 2020 to minimize and mitigate disruptions to the region’s economy and supply chains.
In the midst of efforts to contain the pandemic, ASEAN has begun work on a comprehensive recovery framework which will be holistic, robust, and pragmatic. The framework will guide ASEAN in identifying, prioritizing and implementing actionable measures to address various socioeconomic impact of the pandemic, facilitate the gradual and phased reopening of the economy, as well as traversing the “New Normal” economic and social terrains, towards a more inclusive, sustainable and resilient future.
Reflections on the Impact of COVID-19
While the impact of COVID-19 on ASEAN and its community-building agenda may not be fully understood until the urgent and immediate task of containing the virus and developing a vaccine is successfully completed, the pandemic has brought into focus a few discernible propositions. Among these reflections are the indispensable role played by multilateralism and regional cooperation, the case for embracing human security and the impact of digitalization on life during and after the pandemic.
Affirming the Primacy of Multilateralism and Regional Cooperation
The most important takeaway from the pandemic is the appreciation of the continuing relevance and importance of regional and global cooperation. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the world was reeling from growing criticisms on multilateralism and rising anti-globalization sentiments. COVID-19 shone the light on these misplaced views. Overcoming the pandemic requires collective action and cooperation from the global scientific and medical communities, public-private partnerships (PPP) and an abundance of political will. No single nation, regardless of its strength and power, can effectively tackle COVID-19 on its own. For the past 53 years, ASEAN has embraced the spirit of “the sum is greater than the parts” as the central tenet of the regional organization. More than anything, COVID-19 strengthened the unshakeable bond of brotherhood of nations among ASEAN Member States as they weaved their respective national COVID-19 containment efforts into regional collaborations.
At the same time, ASEAN’s spirit of cooperation was evident amongst its external partners which continued to underline their friendship with technical support, medical supplies and equipment, and expertise. The ASEAN Health Sector, for example, has been collaborating closely with China, Japan and the Republic of Korea, on a bilateral basis and within the framework of the ASEAN Plus Three Health Cooperation mechanisms. Australia, Canada, the European Union, India, New Zealand, Russia, the United States, and other partner institutions have also actively engaged ASEAN.
The strong outpouring of support from external partners is the result of ASEAN’s long-standing investment on fostering and building networks of cooperation through ASEAN-led processes. COVID-19 has brought the best out of ASEAN and its external partners in affirming that in good times, regional cooperation serves as the bedrock for peace and prosperity, and during less opportune times, multilateralism and regional cooperation are the preferred options to address common challenges. The instinctive turn to regional cooperation bodes well for the future of ASEAN and its Centrality. ASEAN proudly stands as a strong advocate for multilateralism even as nationalism and populism poses a challenge to regional and global cooperation in other parts of the world.
“Re-introducing” Human Security into the Regional Security Agenda
The extent of the damage caused by COVID-19 is a wake-up call for ASEAN to rethink its approach to security. The pandemic is an “invisible killer” and dealt devastating blows to the region. Damage to the economy has been extensive. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimated that the region’s economy for the year will decline by 2.7 percent. More alarmingly, the pandemic is expected to disproportionally affect micro, small and medium sized enterprises (MSMEs) and devastate the informal economies, further exposing the most vulnerable segments of ASEAN society to the vagaries of unemployment and poverty. Even large enterprises such as low cost carriers (LCCs) which had been one of ASEAN’s most successful growth stories in the past two decades were not spared as region-wide travel restrictions caused air travel demand to nosedived. Similarly, the region is also losing some of its intangible cultural heritage as many mom-and-pop eateries, as well as established restaurants ceased operations.
Pandemics such as COVID-19 is an unconventional threat which calls for the widening of the national and regional security agenda to include human security which recognizes the multifaceted dimensions of security. To be sure, human security is not a new concept in ASEAN. Indeed, the convening of a Table Top Exercise on public health emergencies response by the ASEAN Center of Military Medicine in May 2020 was a promising sign of the potential synergy between the defense and health sectors in public health emergency cooperation. The fact that a crisis of this scale do not fall neatly under the responsibility of a single sectoral body highlights the relevance of ASEAN’s cross-pillar approach. As such, COVID-19 is first substantive test for cross-pillar coordination, collaboration, and delivery. To do this effectively, some refinement is required, such as the recalibration of coordination mechanisms and decision points to handle crises such as COVID-19. Workflows and reporting lines that work well under normal circumstances may not be as effective in crises.
From a larger perspective, COVID-19 could be the catalyst to help mainstream human security in ASEAN. At the regional level, human security could be seeded through the rooting of ASEAN’s whole-of-Community approach in a range of cross-pillar and cross-sectoral issues in the on-going Mid-Term Review of the Political Security, Economic and Socio-Cultural Community Blueprints and carried forward to the ASEAN Community Vision Post-2025.
Surviving COVID-19 by Riding the Digital Wave
Digitalization provided a lifeline for ASEAN to navigate through the pandemic by providing a spatial alternative for economic and social activities restricted by COVID-19 induced lockdowns and movement restrictions. ASEAN was able to leverage on pre-COVID-19 efforts to swiftly transition onto digital platforms. These efforts kicked into high gear in 2018 when the regional organization resolved “to position ASEAN as a region of seamless business activities and opportunities in the digital economy.” The importance of digital platforms and e-commerce to sustain economic activities cannot be overstated. According to a Google, Temasek, and Bain and Company study, ASEAN had an estimated 360 million internet users in 2019 which contributed US$100 billion to the region’s internet economy. In this respect, the operationalization of the ASEAN Cross-Border Data Flow Mechanism will spur digitalization by promoting a secure, stable and open movement of data to facilitate cross-border trade and transactions. Progress on the e-commerce front is also transferable to the health, education, information, cultural and security sectors.
Indeed, the positive impact of digitalization was manifestly felt beyond the economic sphere. Digital technology deployed by the public health sectors as track and trace systems was an important line of defense against COVID-19. Social media platforms were used to disseminate information, counter disinformation and fake news, and provide updates on the pandemic to the wider community. In some quarters, medical professionals took to cyberspace to provide consultations via videoconferencing facilities. The ubiquity of “work from home” arrangements which were made possible by digital communication and information technology effectively redefined the understanding of work and the workspace. In the similar vein, schools and educational institutions may have to reexamine their pedagogies to bring classrooms into their students’ living rooms. In sum, COVID-19 accelerated and broadened ASEAN’s digitalization agenda which allow users to transcend distance and overcome physical restraints.
Moving Forward to a Post-Pandemic New Normal
ASEAN is not yet out of the woods as far as COVID-19 is concerned. It is taking measured steps to balance the exigencies of public health with the imperative of tending to and rebuilding battered economies and stressed social systems. ASEAN views the health of its people and the well-being of the economy as two different sides of the same coin that will be key to an expeditious and comprehensive recovery from the pandemic. At the same time, the varying degrees of spread and extent of the pandemic rules out a “one size fits all” approach. In this respect, ASEAN Member States are complementing their support and commitment to regional initiatives with bilateral and plurilateral collaborations. A case in point is the establishment of “travel bubbles” or “travel corridors” to enable limited and controlled international movement of people for essential travel to ensure the continuity of critical business activities and to spearhead the region’s COVID-19 recovery efforts.
Notwithstanding the emphasis on reopening and recovery, the protection of public health and the development of vaccine and therapeutic treatments continue to be a top and urgent priority. ASEAN Leaders have pledged their full support to the development of a vaccine that is affordable, accessible and equitably shared for all. Several ASEAN Member States are participating in clinical trials for a potential vaccine. An effective vaccine will hasten the return to normality and provide the critical push to resuscitate vulnerable sectors such as retail, tourism and air travel. It bears reminding that given ASEAN’s heavy dependence (75 percent) on trade with external partners, the restoration of the overall health of the global economy and the uninterrupted trade connectivity would feature prominently in the region’s recovery efforts, as well in all efforts to advance the future growth and prosperity of the ASEAN Community.
Closer to home, ASEAN is finalizing details to establish a Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies (RRMS) which would see the creation and support for a stockpile of strategic medicine, medical supplies and equipment to enhance ASEAN’s capacity to respond to COVID-19 as well as future large scale public health emergencies and epidemics in the region. In addition, ASEAN may consider supplementing the RRMS initiative with enhanced regional capacity to produce and manufacture essential medicine and medical equipment in order to reduce its dependency on a single or selected extra-regional supply points. Likewise, as one of the world’s largest supplier of rubber-based medical protection equipment, ASEAN may want to consider developing modalities to ensure the global supply chain continuity of this critical range of products in future crises.
COVID-19 is viewed as the gravest threat of our generation. Unfortunately, it is not the first and might not be the last pandemic of our lifetime. In fact, pandemics have broken out with increasing regularity, and the region has been hit by four pandemics — SARS, H1N1, MERS and COVID-19 — since the turn of the millennium. Nevertheless, COVID-19 is a game changer. The severity of the pandemic has highlighted the perils of human insecurity and rekindled calls for the region to rethink its national and regional security approaches. Regardless of the outcome of these discussions, it is abundantly clear that the deepening of regional integration requires ASEAN to recalibrate its modus operandi from an exclusive “pillar-centric” modality to a “cross-pillar” approach as regional and global issues have become more complex and rarely fall into neat and compartmentalized singular pillar categorizations.
ASEAN recognizes its potential exposure to future pandemic threats, and has thus deliberately designed the COVID-19 recovery framework to take a long term view with regional resilience to address, manage and overcome future pandemics as one of the three key priority approaches. At the same time, COVID-19 has provided a new sense of urgency to redouble ASEAN’s commitment to deeper regional integration and closer cooperation in the face of rising “white swans” phenomenon. The mid-term reviews of the respective Political Security, Economic and Socio-Cultural Community Blueprints provides ASEAN an opportune entry point to adjust and fine-tune its priorities and agenda to meet the new demands of the post-COVID-19 political, economic and social landscape. No doubt, the experience and lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic will have a bearing on the development of the ASEAN Community Vision Post-2025. In sum, while the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the pace of community-building, ASEAN will bounce back stronger from the immediate work of adjusting and recalibrating its agenda to harness the region’s full potential.