Press Release – Bincang ASEAN: “The Past and the Future of ASEAN Health Cooperation”

Yogyakarta, 5 May 2020

ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada held its first Bincang ASEAN Webinar on Tuesday, 5 May 2020, inviting Ahmad Rizky Mardathillah Umar, M.Sc, a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, Australia and former Executive Secretary of the Center. Umar shares his take on the current COVID-19 pandemic focusing on the past and future of ASEAN Health Cooperation.

Looking closely at ASEAN’s collective response towards the pandemic, Umar highlights ASEAN’s constrained policies while analysing the history of ASEAN’s health cooperation to understand its nature and possible future trajectories of regional health cooperation. Its current dynamics in responding to the outbreak and its implications can be traced back to the SARS and avian flu crisis in 2000, where it was relatively reactionary and resulted in feedback which was insufficient to address a large-scaled outbreak. This precedence has further shaped ASEAN’s responses which leads us to today’s marginalised policies.

Nonetheless, ASEAN’s nature to over-rely on its non-interference policy, places the policy-making and response strongly under the sovereignty of each ASEAN Member State. The current ASEAN’ response and coordination is argued to be ‘too little too late’ and seemingly complicated. However, this is only an indication that ASEAN can still further collaborate to provide  a more comprehensive response to the crisis. Umar argued that ASEAN needs a collective health surveillance system where technical and sectoral cooperation are encouraged with the need for more funding on research and cooperation at the regional level.

“If we take a look at what ASEAN Member States have done to maintain this collective effort, it shows that it has been not promising enough because the initial effort to contain the pandemic was only undertaken in April, months away from the first reported case. Nonetheless, this seemingly late response is understandable as ASEAN has a complex decision-making process and its existing institutional frameworks are not designed to respond to crises,” Umar explained.

With the establishment of the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund which was officialised during the Special ASEAN Summit on COVID-19 held in April, it is hoped that ASEAN can boost greater future collaboration on regional health. It is also expected that ASEAN can result in more robust responses for critical matters not only in health security but in maintaining regional economic stability. “The fear is not only about the virus, but also the threat of an economic collapse in the future following the health crisis” Umar highlights.

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