COVID-19 and Vietnam’s Chairmanship of the ASEAN

Vietnam’s Chairmanship of the ASEAN comes at a time when Novel Coronavirus or COVID-19 is challenging human ability to control the spread of the virus. It is now a ‘global health emergency’ and has spread rapidly across continents. According to the World Health Organization there were 81,109 confirmed cases as on 26 February 2020. As many as 37countries are currently affected and many other countries are reporting new cases. The mortality rate in China is alarming and is currently pegged at 2,718 with over 78,191 reported cases. In its immediate neighbourhood, South Korea is at the top of the list and has reported 1,261 cases and 12 deaths. Japan has confirmed 164 people with infections.

The ASEAN was quick to take note of the situation and it was not surprising that the Secretary General Lim Jock Hoi called upon member states to “stay united and actively respond to the outbreak”. The member countries, individually and collectively, have taken steps to detect, monitor and treat COVID-19 patients in their respective countries. The respective health departments were put into operation to respond the challenge and contain its spread.

Among the ASEAN countries, COVID-19 patients have been indentified in Singapore (89), Malaysia (22), Vietnam (16), Philippines (3) and Cambodia (1).  Meanwhile the Royal Government of Cambodia allowed the Westerdam cruise ship with 2,257 persons on board to dock at Sihanoukville Port taking into consideration a number of factors including the needs of passengers and humanitarian considerations.

It is noteworthy that ASEAN had been forward-looking in its approach to deal with COVID-19 after the SARS epidemic in 2003. However, it is a testing time for Vietnam to deliver on the ASEAN Chairmanship Year 2020’s theme “Cohesive and Responsive”. Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Phạm Bình Minh has announced that the ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) will compile a report on the COVID-19 to be submitted to ASEAN leaders at the 36 th ASEAN Summit scheduled in Vietnam in April.

Vietnam has at its disposal a robust and highly institutionalized ASEAN-led regional response mechanism to such health outbreaks through the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM); 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; ASEAN Military Medicine Conference. Furthermore, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) Experts’ Working Group on Military Medicine is demonstrative of cooperation with their external partners under which they share information to ensure a peaceful, safe and stable environment. 

As 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 ASEAN Centre of Military Medicine, which Vietnam is ready to host at the earliest opportunity in dealing with COVID-19.

Vietnamese response to the COVID-19 has received accolades from the World Health Organization (WHO). Soon after the WHO declared  the outbreak  a ‘public health emergency of international concern’, Hanoi instituted a string of measures - borders with China were closed; a 14-day quarantine for people coming from affected areas in China was instituted; and flights to and from China stopped. The WHO has commended Vietnam for its capacity to mange and respond to ‘health issue including emerging disease is very great’. Meanwhile, Vietnam has not reported any new cases of COVID-19 since February 13.

It will be useful for Vietnam to spearhead innovative ideas in the form of structures to address future pandemic events. These could be developed on the lines of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre), an inter-governmental organisation which aims to facilitate cooperation and coordination among ASEAN Member States and with the United Nations and international organisations for disaster management and emergency response in ASEAN region. Vietnam may also like to propose a Declaration on ‘One ASEAN One Response’ to pandemics to include (a) regional public health emergency preparedness and response plan; (b) regional pooling of Air Ambulances; (c) regional warehouse for storing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE); (d) Data on regional Medical Capacities adapted from WHO’s National Capacities Review Tool for COVID-19; etc.

From a clinical and vaccine viewpoint, the WHO has set up a global research and innovation forum to mobilize international action to respond to COVID-19 and its Director- General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has asserted that “science is critical for bringing this outbreak under control.” In this context, perhaps the biggest challenge for ASEAN would be the issue technology. Artificial Intelligence can help ‘evaluate disease progression and recovery’ as also ‘discover minor pathological changes in the lungs at very early stages of the disease.” For instance, Alibaba claims that its scan-reading AI can diagnose COVID-19 specifically with 96% accuracy. Similarly, Blockchain and Bigdata can help build strong response solutions.

Meanwhile, the ACC and the ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers held a meeting in Laos and have ‘affirmed their solidarity and support for China’s efforts to combat the epidemic’. Vietnam, as the current Chair of the ASEAN merits praise for not only combating COVID-19 at home but also has pledged to promote effective cooperation within ASEAN and between ASEAN and partners particularly China, in fighting the pandemic.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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