Environmental protection key in preventing future disease outbreaks in ASEAN

Current research on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) claim that the virus came from bats, as did MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV, and was likely passed through an intermediary host, believed to be pangolins, before being transmitted to humans. Zoonotic transmission of the disease has thus fuelled clamour for the end of wildlife trade and stronger biological researches. 

We should look at the bigger picture. Although a ban on wildlife trade is critical, preventing future outbreaks (or pandemics) should be anchored within an overarching framework of environmental protection. Scientists maintain that future outbreaks could be even more deadly than COVID-19 and occur anywhere. Conservationists are not overstating the fact when they emphasize taking care of nature as a preventive strategy.

Scientists fear that the rapid melting of ice caps in the polar regions due to climate change will release ancient pathogens and viruses to nature (Source: Gulf News, 2019)

Human incursion into previously untouched wildlife ecosystems increased our risks of contracting deadly pathogens and outbreaks. This outbreak is just the tip of the iceberg. Svenja Schulze, Environment Minister of Germany stated that “science tells us that the destruction of ecosystems makes disease outbreaks, including pandemics more likely”. Global warming has also caused an unprecedented melting of glaciers and icecaps in different regions. It will not only result in the global rise of sea-levels but may also cause the release of ancient frozen viruses and pathogens to nature. Scientists for example have recently discovered 28 never-before-seen virus groups in a Tibetan glacier. This highlights that climate justice and the prevention of pandemics are two faces of a single coin. The climate emergency will most likely turn nature into a ticking time bomb for future pandemics.

Rapid decline in the Artic ice sheets has been recorded through time (Source: Vox, 2018)

Addressing environmental problems is therefore crucial to prevent future outbreaks. However, free-riding and the unequal distribution of harms and benefits pose significant challenges in fostering a comprehensive climate regime in the international arena. If there is something common about pandemics and the climate emergency, it is that they do not respect territorial boundaries and both gravely affect vulnerable populations in developing countries. Considering this existential threat and the uncertainty of global climate negotiations, actions must be done to prevent a tragedy of the commons. Regional organizations should therefore take the lead in advocating and upholding climate justice to send a strong message to the world.

ASEAN: Our Shared Future

There are strong reasons for ASEAN to champion environmental cause. First, the economic growth of the region is founded upon its rich natural resources. Policy experts have stressed the importance of environmental protection for the success of ASEAN Economic Integration. Second, environmental problems in the region such as the loss of biodiversity, air pollution, issues around water security, deforestation, and coastal and marine resources degradation, are intricate and have transboundary implications. For instance, wildfires in Indonesia caused haze that affected Malaysia and Singapore and even reached the Philippines. The issue of water security in the Mekong River is shared by five ASEAN countries. Third, civil groups composed of activists from the region have stressed that ASEAN’s environmental issues have worsened since 2009, and government attention to them is also ‘worsening’. Anbumozhi and Intal Jr. argued that “the current trajectory of environmental degradation in ASEAN is unsustainable”. Additionally, Prof. Wankaew of Chulalongkorn University expressed his concern that current projects conducted by ASEAN governments to boost economic development and security are not well balanced and only add to environmental degradation. The environmental sustainability of the region has economic, political, and social security implications. Hence, we cannot understate the need to realign our priorities towards collaborative environmental governance.

Confronting Existential Threats: ASEAN as Regional Forefront

Pandemics and climate emergency are both existential threats that require deeper integration and collaboration to prevent a tragedy of the commons.

Firstly, we must recognize the climate emergency as an issue of public health. Coordination within ASEAN to prevent future outbreaks must uphold climate justice.

Secondly, although environmental agenda is included in the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASSC), we should institutionalise environmental protection not only under a single pillar, but in all facets of integration. We need to foster a culture of environmental consciousness in our present and future endeavours of physical, institutional, and socio-cultural connectivity. Environmental protection and sustainability should undergird our vision of a “globally competitive single market and production base, with a free flow of goods, services, labour, and investments”.

Thirdly, member-states should reaffirm political will for collaboration on environmental governance. We must set regional environmental goals and standards. Lack of coordination and pursuit of different objectives have caused incoherence at the regional level.  

Finally, ASEAN should champion environmental diplomacy on the global stage. By doing so, we can additionally pursue synergistic and collaborative efforts with partners such as Australia and the European Union around green technology, research and development and so on.  

Now, more than ever, sustainability and climate justice should be taken seriously. ASEAN and the post-COVID-19 world require an international order that goes beyond cooperation on environmental matters, to collaboration. We need to move beyond mitigation and adaptation, to a strong culture of prevention.  In the web of life where everything is connected to everything else, protecting nature is tantamount to the preservation of human life. This pandemic, and climate change, reminds us of our interdependence. No one is safe unless everyone is safe.

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