Managing Disaster: How Asean Responds To Covid-19 Pandemic - by Lt Kol Dr Maimunah Omar

24th November 2020


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to plague the world, countries are in the midst of dealing with the second and third waves of infection, which threaten to undo all the progress that has been underway to contain the virus. As mentioned by the Prime Minister of Malaysia, YAB Tan Sri Dato’ Hj Muhyiddin bin Yassin during the 37th ASEAN SUMMIT on the 12th November 2020, ASEAN continues to play a critical role in carrying out the many initiatives discussed through various ASEAN-led mechanisms. What is required now is ensuring that these initiatives serve as the platform for ASEAN to work collectively, with external partners and other interested parties in alleviating and countering the impacts of COVID-19 in the region. Among the points highlighted by the Prime Minister was that ASEAN must work hand-in-hand with relevant international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and other countries to ensure that the vaccine, once approved, is affordable, accessible and equitably shared by all. As a regional bloc comprising mainly of developing states, it is imperative for ASEAN to focus on the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework.


Many ASEAN countries have taken similar necessary steps to contain the pandemic such as closing all the country borders, imposing travel ban for all citizens to go abroad, making it compulsory for people to take the COVID-19 test, not to mention canceling all religious festivals and celebrations. Steps have also been taken to ban all the gathering activities, restrict public gathering, close mosques and other places of worship, impose working from home and undergo compulsory quarantine to those who come or return from abroad.

Despite that, there are countries that have adopted special measures and orders to address this outbreak and disaster such as those implemented by the Malaysian Government namely the Movement Control Order under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 and the Police Act 1967. Malaysia has also designated more than 400 new sites across the country including public universities, community colleges, training centers, polytechnics and hotels owned by the government, as the quarantine zones for COVID-19 patients. Cambodia, established a special taskforce known as the National Taskforce Committee for COVID-19 Prevention. Laos issued Order No. 06/PM on the Reinforcement of Measures for the Containment, Prevention and Full Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.


Next, the government of Philippines focuses on three core areas which are granting ‘special temporary power’ to the President by congress, imposing a lockdown on the entire island of Luzon, employing the military and police to enforce the President’s orders and lockdown measures. They also implement the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases responsible for containing the spread of the coronavirus. Not only that, the congress and the government also make the effort to control private utilities, telecoms and transport operators or businesses in the public interest and turn hotels and other venues into the medical grounds for the frontlines or people in quarantine.  

To look after the welfare of the citizens, the government of Brunei has issued a directive to all employers to pay the salaries of their employees even in the quarantine period. On April 1st, it introduced an economic stimulus for micro, small and medium enterprises for BND250 million (USD 175million). In Thailand, on 12th March, the government set up a Command Centre for the Management of the COVID-19 Situation in order to respond to the COVID-19 situation, chaired by the Prime Minister. Thailand government also disbursed their economic stimulus and also focused on supporting businesses in the form of low-interest loans, deductions in withholding tax, and VAT refunds.

The Vietnamese government demonstrated its prompt and aggressive response in this battle, where Vietnam was the first nation after China to place a large residential area into the isolation zone to curb the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. By isolating infected people and tracking down their contacts, or the communities who were at risk since they have had close contact with the infected persons, the virus might be able to be contained.


The impact of the pandemic has brought an immediate interruption in all sectors of the economy and adversely impacts tourism, trade and production. The economic impact on the tourism sector in Southeast Asia is also devastating as the virus spreads globally to other countries and regions. Travel restrictions imposed by some Southeast Asian countries to and from Europe and North America further distresses the tourism trade. The economic shock gives more medium-term impacts on poverty and welfare, especially among the more vulnerable in the society and those who work in the informal economy. The informal sector is also affected by the containment measures taken by governments. For instance, lockdown measures have placed them in a more vulnerable position with no income and no savings to stock-up on subsistence goods and no access to the social safety net designed to compensate for lost income. 

Within the informal sector, the presence of migrant workers poses another challenge, as the lockdown measures and stricter transport and border controls would make it difficult for them to repatriate. Without work and money, the immigrant workers do exert a national threat to the country. Women also face particular challenges as they are at the core of the COVID-19 response. The pandemic risks curtail income generation opportunities for women, as they tend to be more frequently employed in the informal sector. The public health system is increasingly struggling to cope with the growing demand and the medical sector is overstretched, calling for targeted policy responses. A number of countries in the region have implemented a variety of measures, such as cash delivery to medical personnel or World Bank loans to purchase medical equipment.


Strategic Level

More recently, there has been an increasing policy convergence and a more united regional response by ASEAN leaders. Communication is exchanged through online meetings as an effort to prevent, detect and respond to COVID-19. As an example, the ASEAN Health Minister (AHHM) Conference chaired by Indonesian Health Minister on 7th April 2020 aimed to intensify regional cooperation in addressing and dealing with the issue. Among the consensus agreed upon was further strengthening of regional cooperation on risk communication to avert misinformation and fake news, continuing to share information, research and studies in real-time in an open and transparent way, coordinating cross-border health responses; scaling-up the use of digital technology and artificial intelligence for efficient information exchanges and strengthening and institutionalizing the preparedness, surveillance, prevention, detection and response mechanisms of ASEAN with other partners. ASEAN Foreign Ministers held an ASEAN Coordinating Council meeting on COVID-19 to discuss and exchange views on the ASEAN collective response to the rapid outbreak of COVID-19. As a result, ASEAN proposed to establish a COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund. Further action has been agreed by the leaders; which issued a declaration of the ASEAN special summit proposing to establish the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund to boost the emergency stockpiles for future outbreaks (Association of Southeast ASEAN Nations (ASEAN) 2020c). ASEAN has invited ASEAN Plus 3 (Japan, South Korea and China) to contribute to this fund.

Furthermore, the Economic Ministers of ASEAN and Japan had a meeting on 22nd April and released a Joint Statement on Initiatives on Economic Resilience in Response to the COVID-19 outbreak, affirming their commitment to prepare an “ASEAN-Japan Economic Resilience Action Plan.” On the following day, the ASEAN-U.S. Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on COVID-19 took place via video conference to discuss ASEAN-U.S. collaboration in public health emergencies, particularly in the post-pandemic recovery and in countering the longer-term socio-economic impacts of COVID-19.

During the 26th ASEAN Economic Ministers (AEM) retreat in Da Nang, Viet Nam on 10th March 2020, AEM agreed on this agenda “Strengthening ASEAN’s Economic Resilience in Response to the Outbreak of the COVID-19,” which called for a collective action to mitigate the impact of the virus by working with external and development partners. The statement focuses on leveraging technology, digital trade, and trade facilitation platforms such as the ASEAN ‘Single Window’, to foster supply chain connectivity. The statement further includes the need to improve long-term supply chain resilience and sustainability particularly through the implementation of the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025. AEM seeks to continue to address non-tariff barriers, particularly those that impede the smooth flow of goods and services in supply chains and refrain from imposing new and unnecessary non-tariff measures.

Operational and Implementation Level

At the operational and implementation level, several initiatives and actions have been set up by the ASEAN health sector to share technical expertise, risk reports, data analyses and to ensure the maintenance of international regulations and standards. Among the mechanisms that have been taken are through the ASEAN Emergency Operations Centre Network for Public Health Emergencies (ASEAN PHEOC Network) that has taken the initiative in sharing daily situational updates on the diseases. ASEAN PHEOC Network for the public led by the Ministry of Health of Malaysia provides a platform among ASEAN member state officials working at the respective crisis centers for disease prevention and control to share information in a timely manner through various mechanisms of communication. WhatsApp mobile application was established for that purpose. PHEOC network also produces a compilation on National/Local Hotline/Call Centre in ASEAN Member State which is then shared with the public on the social media. Next, the ASEAN BioDioaspora Regional Virtual Centre (ABVC) for big data analytics and visualization complemented this by providing a report on the national risk assessments, readiness and response planning efforts. This center also publishes a Risk Assessment Report for an international dissemination of COVID-19 to the ASEAN region to provide highlights, responses, the overview of the situation, also the number of cases and deaths in ASEAN countries.

As for public health, the finance and resource mobilization are crucial to assist the member states in procuring medical supplies and equipment as they are currently lacking in some regions. The strengthening collaboration has been called by the declaration of the special ASEAN summit on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (14 April 2020). Some measures have been agreed by the declaration such are further solidifying public health cooperation measures to contain the pandemic and protect the people, making sound arrangements to preserve the supply chain connectivity, doing further work based on a multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral and comprehensive approach by ASEAN. Other than that ASEAN need to effectively respond to COVID-19 and future public health emergencies, taking collective actions and coordinating policies in mitigating the economic and social impacts from the pandemic, enhancing an effective and transparent public communication involving multiple forms of media including timely updates of relevant public health and safety information and support the ASEAN Member States affected by the pandemic. Last but not least, the measures also include reallocating existing available funds and encouraging technical and financial support from ASEAN partners to facilitate cooperation.


There are similarities and differences in the crisis response and management in every southeast ASEAN country to COVID-19; however, there are many valued lessons that have been learnt by them. ASEAN countries should look into sharing the expertise in broader perspectives such as sharing and training their medical workers, doctors, paramedics, supporting staff or sharing even more information about the medical supplies. Thus, it creates a change to boost the national responses to combat the infection and prepare for an outbreak of similar coronaviruses in the future. Several actions need to be urgently improved including the surge in the healthcare capacity, infection prevention and control and update information for the whole public.

Countries in ASEAN also learn from other successful countries in dealing with this pandemic such as mitigating the impacts with partial closure for example in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia where they are starting to shift their policy to stricter measures such as lockdown or larger scale quarantine following the surge of infection in their countries. During COVID-19 onset during January - February 2020, ASEAN’s “One ASEAN - One Response” (OAOR) and One Vision, One Identity, One Community framework was put to the test. Despite being proven to be relatively successful as the main focus is on natural hazards, the ASEAN’s coordinated response seemed less visible in the first quarter of 2020. Therefore, fuller understanding of ASEAN’s response to COVID-19 should be further examined in future.  

ASEAN also delves into certain policies and protocols that ASEAN has, but unsure of, in terms of the success of the implementation during the COVID-19 pandemic such as Protocol for Communication and Information Sharing on Emerging Infectious Diseases, with a standardized Protocol for Communication and Information Sharing on Emerging Infectious Diseases that encourages member states to report all cases of diseases categorized as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). Past programs include the cooperation of Disaster Safety of Health Facilities and the ASEAN + 3 Field Epidemiology Training Network as well as the ASEAN Regional Public Health Laboratories Network (RPHL) through the Global Health Security Agenda platform. It is not clear how such networks contribute to effective policy making amid this COVID-19 pandemic.


ASEAN and its whole communities need to build a resilient health system that is also fair, green and sustainable. Extensive early measures taken by each member state are the key to the successful control of the virus. Although during March and April 2020, ASEAN has reconvened and utilized its existing health regional mechanism to try to have a coherent response to the impacts, COVID-19 shows that shock and changes can occur any time and at different scales, and health systems need to have the ability to absorb, adapt and transform in dealing with the shock. As a regional bloc, ASEAN must work hand-in-hand in focusing on the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework. Strengthening future collaboration should be the very next agenda by recognizing that there is a more coherent, multi-sectoral, multi-stakeholders and comprehensive ASEAN community approach in ensuring a timely and effective response to the pandemic.


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