Heads of government of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), this year chaired by Vietnam, are to hold a summit today, with Covid-19 preparedness and response the paramount issue.
In order to prevent the further spread of the virus, the 10 Asean leaders will convene via teleconference, the first of its kind since the establishment of the grouping in 1967. After the morning meeting, the leaders will also engage with three major dialogue partners -- China, Japan and South Korea -- which together have recorded combined infections of nearly 100,000. This will be the grouping's second discussion about the outbreak since an emergency meeting with China was held in Vientiane in February.
Nguyen Quoc Dung, Vietnam's deputy foreign minister, told the media last week that today's summit will address what is needed to combat the novel coronavirus outbreak.
"The event will demonstrate the determination of Asean to prevent and fight the spread of the coronavirus pandemic," said the minister.
According to the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, the grouping will jointly set up a fund, medical supply storage facilities and a public medical network to combat the virus which has hit its member countries hard, with more than 19,000 accumulated infections and over 790 deaths as of yesterday. Indonesia has suffered the most with over 370 deaths while the Philippines overtook Malaysia with the highest number of infections at over 4,930. Each country has struggled with the side effects of economic slumps and surges in unemployment as a result of the lockdowns imposed.
Initially, it is proposed that the grouping will divert money from the Asean Development Fund and existing cooperation funds with the three dialogue partners for further emergency response measures. The agreed amount should be known today.
It's crucial that the grouping makes its war against the disease a top priority.
It should be noted that in the past months each member country has taken its own steps to combat the virus which has so far killed more than 50,000 worldwide. After today's summit, it is hoped there will be a more concerted effort, with each member country pitching in to help bring the outbreak under control.
In fact, Asean ministers should not try to set up any new health mechanisms but just explore ways to make better use of existing channels, so they can save time on logistics and infrastructure building.
The 10 Asean leaders should also address disparities between the group's members and ensure that assistance, including testing kits and personal protective equipment, reaches those who need it most. It is vital that information is shared openly at this time.
While infection rates remain low in Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, with 19, 41 and 122 cases respectively, the grouping should prepare for the worst-case scenario given the fact that these countries have limited healthcare capabilities. This is of particular relevance to Thailand, as the country depends heavily on migrant workers from these three neighbours.
The recent lockdown here saw most migrant workers return home because of job losses. There will be further challenges ahead when they cross back over the border to return to their workplaces once Thailand brings the outbreak under control.
The grouping should cooperate with a view to collective resilience. Member countries must help one another in this battle and prove to the world that, in Asean, "no one is left behind".