India and ASEAN COVID-19 Response:Time to Recall ADMM Plus

ASEAN has been forward-thinkingin its approach and proactive in planning to fight infectious diseases. After the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003, it set up several institutionalized ASEAN-led regional response mechanismsunder the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM). These include the Network of ASEAN Chemical, Biological and Radiological Defence Experts which facilitates professional linkages, and promote scientific cooperation to manage infectious disease outbreaks; ASEAN Centre for Military Medicine; ASEAN Chiefs of Military Medicine Conference; and the ASEAN Military Medicine Conference.

Similarly, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), an expanded mechanism comprising ADMM and its external partners (Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, ROK, Russian Federation and the United States) focuses on seven areas of practical cooperation including military medicine. Each of these thematic groups has an Experts Working Group (EWG) to facilitate cooperation among the Member States.

The ASEAN Centre for Military Medicine (ACMM) is an important institution in the ‘alphabet soup’ of the ADMMand ADMM Plus architecture. The ACMM,through its website, provides details of COVID-19 related information on ASEAN Member States and ASEAN-led regional responses to fight the pandemic. It publishes a special report ‘Spot report: Pandemic of COVID-19’ which is a compilation of COVID-19 related data among the ASEAN member countries including current WHO guidance. It also provides a variety of guidelines for setting up field hospital and encourages ASEAN military medical services to adhere to national public health authorities directions. In current times, the ACMM activities relate to COVID-19 including planning for table top exercises. During April 2020, ACMM held Pre-ADMM COVID-19 TTX conference with THAI MOPH (OIC) as also with the WHO office in Thailand. Another Pre-ADMM COVID-19 TTX conference with representative of EWG- MM (Australia) was held on 30 April 2020.

The international community has invested enormous political, diplomatic, economic, technological and strategic capital to contain COVID-19 and cooperation to fight the pandemic is the buzzword. The ASEAN Health Ministers joint statement impresses upon sharing regional and national experiences in responding to COVID-19 challenges. India and ASEAN have an obligation to join international and regional efforts to fight the pandemic.

The ACMM has in the past promoted and engaged Member Countries of the ADMM Plus through the Expert Working Group on Military Medicine (EWG-MM). India has been actively engaged with EWG-MM and along with Myanmar, it co-chaired the 3rd cycle of EWG-MM. It also hosted a standalone Field Exercise on Military Medicine in March 2019 at the Army Medical Corps Centre and School, Lucknow, in Uttar Pradesh.

The Indian armed forces have been at the forefront of national efforts to fight the pandemic and provided COVID-19 related medical services to the Indian people while keeping itself well insulated from the contagion. It has produced a number of medical equipment such as masks, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE),portable ventilators and ‘air evacuation pod’ to airlift COVID-19 infected patients. The Indian Air Force facilitated airlift of critical medical equipment from China,delivered medical supplies to Sri Lanka andrepatriated Indian’s stranded in Iran. Similarly, the Indian Navy is currently supporting national efforts of unprecedented scale to sealift Indian nationals stranded in Persian Gulf countries, Maldives and other Indian Ocean countries.

The ADMM Plus is an annual gathering since 2010, and the last meeting i.e. the 6th ADMM-Plus was held at Bangkok, Thailand on 18 November 2019. The 7th ADMM-Plus under the Chairmanship of Vietnam is to be held at Hanoi, Vietnam in October 2020 where COVID-19 issue will surely be high on the agenda.

As the ASEAN Military Medicine Chair, Vietnamese Defence Minister Ngô Xuân Lịch has proposed that member countries consider organizing drills during 2020 to cope with outbreaks and spread of disease. Also, there is a proposal to conduct a tabletop exercise within the framework of the ACMM, for which Vietnam had expressed its willingness to host at the earliest opportunity in dealing with COVID-19. It is worth consideration that India host a virtual Table Top Exercise (TTX) in partnership with the ACMM and share best practices.

We are told that COVID-19 is here to stay till such time an effective vaccine is developed and the World Health Organisations has warned that we are still long way from winning the fight against this virus. In this context, ADMM Plus countries have an opportunity to make the ADMM Plus more robust and prepare to develop a robust regional cooperation mechanism to address regional health emergencies and pandemics such as the COVID-19.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is a Consultant, Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi, India.

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