The responses of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) as a regional grouping to Covid-19 have been divisive, unclear, nonconsultative, impromptu, and driven by divergent policies, leading its member-states to control the pandemic individually and independently of each other. These are the assessments of observers among think tanks, media outfits, and independent researchers.
A case in point is the lack of a coordinated vaccination drive that would address the gap in resources and capabilities among Asean societies.
A few meetings and “summits” were merely conducted for show while decisive actions and follow-through were sorely lacking even as infections rose dramatically. It was each nation for itself as bilateral negotiations for much-needed equipment, protective devices, and vaccines were resorted to in place of regional efforts.
The one major Asean initiative was to establish the Covid-19 Asean Response Fund in June 2020 supposedly to serve as “a pool of financial resources” to provide support to member-states” in confronting a host of logistical problems related to Covid-19. These included controlling infections, safeguarding health frontliners and the wider population, procuring medical supplies and equipment, and undertaking joint research and development.
Contributions from Asean governments to the Fund, however, have been tepid and mediocre. The latest count saw only four pledging a total of merely $400,000—Singapore with $100,000 (November, 2020), Vietnam with $100,000 (November, 2020), Thailand with $100,000 (June, 2020), and the Philippines with $100,000 (January 2022).
Vietnam also contributed US$5 million of health equipment to the Fund.
Non-Asean states have contributed much more. By August 2021, $1.2 billion worth of aid has been reportedly granted to Asean by its 11 dialogue partners. These are the European Union, United States, Germany, Italy, Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom and Canada.
The nature of assistance is not clear though: how much in the form of loans, outright grants and in kind. Earlier, it was disclosed that the Covid-19 Asean Response Fund would be handed out through loans in the cases of Chinese, Japanese and South Korean aid.
Also unclear is how much was coursed through the Fund and how much was granted on a bilateral basis. By January 2022, several aid modes were granted directly to individual Asean countries in terms of vaccine doses, heavy equipment, personal and protection equipment. Institutional support was granted to Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, Cambodia, and Myanmar from the World Health Organization Covax facility, United Kingdom, United States, Japan and South Korea.
No comprehensive guidelines
Donor hesitance to course assistance through the Fund may be traced to the absence of comprehensive guidelines in management and disbursement. There may also be doubts about the Asean Secretariat’s ability to oversee the fund, having long been considered a weak institution lacking in human, financial and administrative capacities.
In any case, Asean has not been transparent and has failed to officially report on the status of the fund and how allocations have been utilized and disbursed. This prompted the Philippine representative to the September 2021 Asean Senior Officials’ Meeting, Ma. Theresa Lazaro, to issue an urgent appeal for the implementation of key Asean initiatives for regional recovery from the pandemic, especially in the purchase of vaccines through the Fund.
Such appeal seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. In Asean’s latest “Covid-19 Situational Report” issued on June 15, 2022, there is not a single mention of the Fund.
Since the start of the pandemic, total cumulative cases for Southeast Asia had reached 32.19 million with 354,584 deaths as of June 27. Moreover, in the June 16-23 period, it was the only region in the world that saw a rise in deaths.
Full vaccinations, on the other hand, has covered less than 50% of the region’s population, way below the WHO-mandated standard of 70%. Regardless of divergent and unequal vaccination rollouts, Asean took the hasty step in May of mutual recognition of each member-country’s vaccination certificates to ease cross-border travels.
Asean’s failure to coordinate in responding to the pandemic seriously undermines its status as a viable regional organization that can act decisively and quickly when confronted by a crisis. More importantly, it negates its much-promoted and publicized image of a unified, people-oriented and people-caring Asean.
This piece is excerpted with revisions from the author’s introduction in “Southeast Asian Peoples in Pandemic Times: Challenges and Responses,” Covid-19 Grassroots Report Vol 2. University of the Philippines’ Center for Integrative and Development Studies, Program on Alternative Development (UP CIDS AltDev), in partnership with 11-11-11 (Coalition of the Flemish North-South Movement). Unpublished monograph. 22 January 2022.” —Ed.