Outbreak plan buried in past archives

Outbreak plan buried in past archives

The ongoing 2019-nCoV outbreak isn't the first time the world has had to grapple with the threat posed by an emerging, communicable disease.

This outbreak (along with past H1N1 and H5N1 influenza, Mers, Sars, and Ebola outbreaks) once again reminds us of the importance of having a comprehensive and practical architecture on a national, regional and international level, in order to address pandemic threats in a timely manner.

In the absence of such an approach, the risk of further fatalities -- as well as disruptions to the economy and society -- beckons.

Back in 2015, I served on a six-member High-level Panel on the Global Response to Health Crises. The panel was set-up by the secretary-general of the United Nations to come up with recommendations to strengthen both national and international mechanisms to effectively prevent and respond to health crises in the future, while taking into account the lessons learnt from the Ebola crisis.

The panel's report, titled "Protecting Humanity from Future Health Crises", presented 27 recommendations to deal with future pandemic threats. The proposals ranged from enhancing the World Health Organisation's (WHO) emergency preparedness and response; urging the full implementation of the International Health Regulation (2005) by all nations; increasing the financing of research into neglected diseases and other dangerous pathogens; and the establishment of a high-level council on global public health crises within the UN General Assembly to provide political leadership on global preparedness and monitor the implementation of reforms.

It is no coincidence that in identifying the appropriate response, the report highlighted the need for all steps taken at each level of administration -- from local to international -- to complement each other.

The report, for example, referred to the development of regional organisations to assist in preventing and/or responding to health crises, with particular emphasis on areas where these organisations can add significant value to responses at the national level.

A decade earlier, the inaugural East Asia Summit (EAS) was held in Kuala Lumpur in 2005 against the backdrop of the 2003 Sars outbreak. As a result, cooperation in addressing threats posed by communicable and emerging diseases became a continued focus of its members.

The chairman's statement at the most recent EAS in Bangkok, for instance, mentioned the meeting of regional senior officials on potential cooperation to address "threats of communicable and emerging infectious diseases" and stressed the importance of dialogue "to further enhance regional cooperation in strengthening pandemic preparedness and response".

Similarly, the Manila Plan of Action (2018-2022) included an extensive list of possible areas of cooperation in the field of global health issues and pandemics.

Indeed, preventing and mitigating communicable diseases can be said to have become a regular feature in Asean and Asean-led processes. It is not without reason, therefore, that the aforementioned panel report mentioned Asean's important role in regional responses to HIV/Aids, Sars and H5N1 influenza.

It was the same recognition of the need for greater strategic focus on health as a foreign policy issue that motivated seven countries -- including Indonesia and Thailand -- to launch the Global Health and Foreign Policy initiative through the Oslo Ministerial Declaration in 2006. Since then, Global Health and Foreign Policy has been included in the annual agenda of the UN General Assembly.

In short, the region has been aware of the need to have complementary frameworks in order to effective deal with emerging communicable diseases, as we are now again confronted with.

The questions then are, why weren't such principles and frameworks invoked in a timely manner when the present coronavirus outbreak came to light?

Will the full potential of the already extant frameworks -- at the very least to systematically share basic data on cases and to communicate, or better still, coordinate, policy responses -- be triggered anytime soon?

Has the public's collective responses shown more common resolve than the seemingly-disparate, and sometimes, differing national responses thus far?

Isn't the present novel coronavirus outbreak an issue whose impact transcends national boundaries and whose mitigation demands coordinated action?

Wouldn't a complementary response make a more comprehensive analysis of regional dynamics possible, for instance, issues which relate to modern-day travel?

Wouldn't a complementary response make the sharing of key response assets -- including laboratories, medical research and evacuation facilities -- a lot easier?

No matter how the region is defined -- as a gathering of Southeast Asian countries or as part of the more extensive (and recently in vogue) Indo-Pacific region -- we are fortunate to have at least a decade's experience of dealing with emerging communicable diseases through dialogue carried that has been out under Asean-led frameworks.

There isn't an institutional deficit at the regional level so what we should do is utilise and invoke the existing mechanisms in a more effective and timely manner.

The risk of further fatalities and disruptions are real. The situation cannot wait for the convening of the regular Asean summits. It demands that Asean demonstrate concrete leadership in keeping with its often-cited claims. To demonstrate that it matters. Much is at stake.

Marty Natalegawa was Foreign Minister of Indonesia (2009-14), author of 'Does ASEAN Matter?: A View from Within (ISEAS, 2018)'. The views expressed are the personal opinions of the writer.

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