Although South-east Asia suffered badly, the region was largely spared from bearing the brunt of the global coronavirus pandemic for most of last year. However, the region is now in the grip of a new level of infections that is placing unprecedented pressure on healthcare systems and threatening to undo the progress of economies emerging only fitfully from last year’s sudden epidemiological assault. The fresh wave of Covid-19 that has hit South Asia is instructive for its neighbouring region. The phenomenon of testing regimes being limited by the capacity of national healthcare systems, an exponential rise in daily cases, hospital beds that filled up quickly, and a severe oxygen shortage that left many people gasping for breath before dying right in front of hospitals are some of the warning signs from South Asia that South-east Asian nations need to take seriously before they are overwhelmed in turn.
One link between the two regions is the highly transmissible variant, dubbed the “double mutant” B1617, first identified in India and since detected, along with other strains, in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. In Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, under-equipped healthcare systems have made them vulnerable to an alarming rise in cases. In Cambodia, for example, overwhelmed hospitals led the authorities to direct health officials to prepare to treat patients at home.
Asean has a key role to play. The grouping notes that it responded swiftly to the onset of the pandemic through initiatives not only in the areas of health and foreign affairs but also in affected sectors such as agriculture, education, labour, social welfare, trade and transport. For example, Asean agreed to keep markets open for trade and investment and facilitate the seamless flow of essential goods, including food, medicine and medical products. The Asean Comprehensive Recovery Framework (ACRF), which presents a consolidated exit strategy from the coronavirus crisis, recognises the need to strengthen essential health services and vaccine security.
Ensuring the adequate supply of trained and well-equipped healthcare workers is necessary, not only to combat the disease but also to prepare the region for future pandemics. The ACRF contributes to the idea of Asean resilience through collective and concerted action. That reputation will be challenged if South-east Asia faces a replay of the ghastly tragedy unfolding in South Asia. Admittedly, healthcare responses to Covid-19 will be national primarily. Each country must look after its citizens first. However, precisely because Covid-19 is a contagious disease that spills across borders, and in the absence of pre-emptive moves, Asean must treat the region as an epidemiological whole and step up coordinated measures to deal with this outbreak in its midst.