ASEAN Leaders Meet Online, Reallocate Funds to Combat COVID-19

Southeast Asian leaders agreed at a special online summit on Tuesday to ensure a social safety net for the region’s vulnerable populations and backed reallocating funds toward fighting the COVID-19 outbreak.

The leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) later in the day held a separate online summit with leaders from China, Japan and South Korea to discuss the global public health crisis, whose ripple effects have battered economies worldwide. Tuesday’s meetings were held via video-calls because of COVID-19 concerns.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the chairman of ASEAN in 2020 and whose country hosted the regional bloc’s special summit, said all its members were struggling to prevent the coronavirus from negatively affecting their people.

“It is in these grim hours that the solidarity of the ASEAN community shines like a beacon in the dark,” he said in his opening statement.

Nations in the bloc, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, have recorded more than 20,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 900 deaths from the disease.

In a joint statement, the members agreed to: “Cooperate in ensuring a social safety net for our people, preventing social disruption and instability as a consequence of negative impact of the pandemic, continue efforts to design and implement risk-informed and shock-responsive social protection systems to reduce the vulnerabilities of at-risk populations and improve their overall resilience.”

In addition, members said they would intensify cooperation to obtain adequate provisions of medicine, essential medical supplies and equipment including diagnostic tools and personal protective equipment.

They also agreed to support reallocating existing funds to battle the pandemic and to establish a “COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund.”

“We have no choice but to unite to fight this virus,” Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said.

While the ASEAN leaders did not set a target amount for the fund, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha said it should be used to procure test kits, personal protective equipment and medical tools.

In addition, it should be used to support research and development in medicines and vaccines to help ASEAN become more self-reliant, he said.

Thai officials said the fund should involve reallocating 10 percent of existing ASEAN development funds along with donations from the so-called Plus Three nations – China, Japan and South Korea.

Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, called for closer cooperation in the face of what he called “an unfolding catastrophe – unprecedented in scale and devastating in impact for all.”

“We are particularly concerned with food security in this period of lockdowns. Our most urgent priority is ensuring sufficient supply of rice for our people,” Duterte said.

The Philippine leader said ASEAN must be open for trade.

“Crisis or no crisis, no country can stand alone,” he said. “Let us, therefore ensure the supply chain connectivity and the smooth flow of goods within our region.”

Duterte called on ASEAN to establish an early warning system to prepare for future pandemics.

“We have to improve and expand existing ASEAN’s mechanisms to cover public health emergencies,” he said.

Malaysia’s leader urged his ASEAN counterparts to start discussing an economic recovery plan focusing not just on the financial aspects, but also on social safety nets.

“We must not allow ASEAN to revert back to our comfort zone – but make ASEAN emerge as a new growth center, a new power-house not just for our 600 million people, but for the world,” Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin told the summit.

During the ASEAN Plus Three meeting, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed establishing a regional center for infectious diseases.

“International cooperation is essential for combating the virus that is spreading beyond borders,” Abe said, according to Japanese media. “We should share information and knowledge in a free, transparent and swift manner.”

The proposal drew support from the other participants.

“ASEAN countries agreed to act on Japan’s proposal and discuss it further,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters.

Li Keqiang, the premier of China, where the coronavirus was detected, meanwhile proposed establishing a fast route for essential personnel to travel to other countries, according to a news release from the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta.

“Keqiang said that APT countries need to leverage their strengths in economic complementarity and strong business ties to further ease tariffs, eliminate barriers, boost the flow of trade and investment, and keep markets open to each other, in an effort to restore growth in East Asia as quickly as possible,” it said, referring to the ASEAN Plus Three countries.

“With all the necessary control measures in place, we should consider opening a ‘fast-track lane’ for essential personnel on urgent visits in the areas of commerce, logistics, production and technological services. This will be conducive to maintaining the necessary flow of people and goods and stabilizing the industrial and supply chains.”

ASEAN lawmakers welcomed Tuesday’s online summits before they got into full swing.

“It’s high time that ASEAN leaders get together to find a regional response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis,” Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP who chairs the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said in a statement issued by the group.

“Neither the virus nor the consequences of the measures taken to stop the pandemic will stop at one’s border. The current situation, as well as the management of its long term impact, requires regional solidarity and a global solution,” he added.

Deadly day in Indonesia

The ASEAN leaders met on the day that Indonesia recorded its highest single-day death count since Southeast Asia’s most populous nation confirmed its first coronavirus cases in early March.

The toll rose to 459 after 60 deaths were reported in the past 24 hours, according to the country’s COVID-19 task force. The number of confirmed cases increased by 282 to 4,839, task force spokesman Achmad Yurianto said.

Worldwide nearly 122,000 people have died and nearly 2 million have been infected by COVID-19, according to the latest data compiled by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

In a report issued over the weekend, epidemiological experts at the University of Indonesia warned that COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization could hit 1 million on the main island of Java by July if the government did not ban people from traveling to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan.

The government previously banned civil servants, soldiers and police from taking part in the annual exodus. The ban did not cover the rest of nation.

Luhut Pandjaitan, coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, downplayed the prediction even though Indonesia has the highest COVID-19 death toll in East Asia outside of China.

“So far, I believe, Indonesia is in good shape,” Pandjaitan told reporters on Tuesday.

Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036

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