Covid-19 response: What's next?

Covid-19 response: What's next?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) region is said to be the next epicentre of Covid-19, followed by fear of undetected cases as a result of varying testing capacity in each member state. Witnessing the deadly impact of this virus and the horror it causes in the European Union, especially in Italy, Spain and France, it is safe to say that a harmonious, integrated regional response is paramount to determine the result of this battle: winning or losing. Understanding this, Asean leaders, along with Japan, South Korea and China on Tuesday held a special summit to form a more integrated regional response to Covid-19.

During the summit, Asean leaders stated their strategies, such as the creation of an agreed set of common criteria or guidelines on travel and trade restrictions, a protocol for cross-border public health responses for contact tracing and outbreak investigation, the establishment of Covid-19 Asean Response Fund, and the reactivation of regional bodies for financial stability. Ideas to ensure the smooth flow of medical supplies, food, essential goods, as well as economic recovery plan post-Covid-19 for social safety nets, food security and education were also brought into the table by the leaders. Despite the applaudable step that Asean has finally made, there is still so much to do.

It is not the first time that Asean has faced a public health crisis. During the Sars outbreak in 2003, the 10-member grouping issued the Joint Declaration Special Asean Leaders Meeting and established an ad-hoc Ministerial-level Joint Task Force, receiving praise from the World Health Organization (WHO). Besides, during an influenza pandemic, Asean worked together with Japan in stockpiling Tamiflu and personal protective equipment (PPE), while also established a guideline on the release and transportation of the medicine and PPE to Asean member states. Subsequently, Asean has established a clear health mechanism, such as Asean Expert Group on Communicable Diseases (AEGCD) and -- the most important one in the pandemic -- Asean Technical Working Group on Pandemic Preparedness and Response (ATWGPPR).

Despite the outstanding experiences and regional institutional capacity, Asean leaders ceased to further reactivate these existing health mechanisms. New institutions, such as Asean Coordinating Council on Covid-19, were then preferred to spearhead the fight against the pandemic. Matters discussed in Tuesday's special summit were highly focused on socio-economic matters, none of which ensured protection and fulfilment of human rights in Asean, especially of the marginalised communities. The strategies concluded by Asean leaders seemed to only touch the surface of discrepancies between each member state in handling the pandemic, without addressing how the distribution will be fair and equal, to all individuals regardless of their background or economic condition.

To address huge gaps of national health capacity in several Asean member states, capacity-sharing and joint-fund to procure necessary equipment were planned during the summit. Nevertheless, the leaders have yet to state any commitment in the summit to ensure the access towards the necessary health equipment, which is embedded to the right to social security in international law, while it is possible that several Asean member states, such as Indonesia, will face a problem in ensuring equal access to health services. The pledge to provide a safety net or any form of social security also poses another problem; whether it will cover migrant workers, informal, casual, domestic, and temporary workers equally. Although international law stipulates an obligation for states to eliminate any barrier for these workers to access the most basic form of social security, domestic laws and regulations in several Asean member states still exclude these people from fully practicing their rights.

Some Asean member states also imposed violations against the civil and political rights of individuals, such as Indonesia, which recently issued an internal police regulation to crack down on those who criticise government's virus handling, along with the possibility of enacting "civil emergency" that authorises the government to track private conservations of individuals.

Although limitation to certain rights is permissible, it should be following international human rights standards. WHO's International Health Regulations (IHR) even requires countries to exercise their health powers in a transparent and non-discriminatory manner, with full respect for the dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Effective and comprehensive implementation of the special summit's decision must be ensured by each Asean member state. Reactivation of the health mechanism, especially the ATWGPPR is still needed. This working group will gather outstanding experts from countries successful to suppress the pandemic, including Singapore and Vietnam to further outline the plan and assistance for the struggling countries.

Consultation and cooperation on public health policy, such as the regulations for quarantine, lockdown or social movement restriction should also be facilitated among the member states, to further contain the pandemic and stop the spread to other regions within Asean.

Other measures, such as the provision of social security and access to healthcare, should adhere to international human rights standards and principles.

To mitigate the risk of human rights violations, the Asean Risk Assessment and Risk Communication Centre can take up the role and advise member states on policies that comply with human rights standards. This clear and robust mechanism will not only give a sense of security and solidarity among the people in Asean but also equip the region to win the battle.

Dominique Virgil is a researcher in Amnesty International and the Executive Director of Sandya Institute.

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