SEA-ing the next pandemic: The role of environmental diplomacy in pandemic prevention in Southeast Asia

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

Owing to a combination of socio-economic and environmental factors, Southeast Asia is widely recognized as a hotspot for zoonotic diseases. The region is home to a wide variety of endemic species that have the potential to serve as amplifier hosts to new zoonotic diseases. This is further complicated by the region’s practice of wildlife consumption and trade. Each year, it is estimated that tens of millions of wild animals are brought to Southeast Asia, resulting in close contact between humans and animals. This elevated human-animal contact raises the risk of pathogen spillover. Other factors that contribute to the risk of the emergence of infectious diseases in the region are population growth, deforestation, and the increased demand for food, especially animal protein

According to the World Health Organisation, zoonoses are infectious diseases caused by pathogens that have been transmitted from animals to humans. Zoonotic diseases pose a significant risk to global health. This is because the lack of prior exposure to these diseases means that the human body has not been able to develop antibodies to fight against the pathogen. Nearly all known pandemics and around 70 percent of emerging infectious diseases are classified as zoonoses. In Southeast Asia, several infectious diseases have been detected: bird flu, Nipah virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and new recombinants of A H1N1 virus. 

The emergence of zoonotic diseases exemplifies the interlinkages of the environment and human health. In particular, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, widely regarded as a zoonotic disease, illustrates the potential of infectious diseases to cause devastating socio-economic disruptions globally. In response to this, there has been an emphasis on bolder environmental protection and ecosystem restoration as vital long-term strategies in pandemic prevention. An example of this is the emphasis on environment-related policies in many states’ post-pandemic strategies which has been dubbed as “green recovery”. In Southeast Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopted the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework in 2020. Among other things, the framework underscores sustainability as a broad strategy in the region’s post-COVID-19 recovery.

However, as most countries in Southeast Asia are considered developing countries, the region has faced challenges in implementing environmental initiatives. The region’s weak financial structure and lack of available funding have been pointed out as key challenges in supporting green and climate-resilient infrastructure and environmental protection programs. Aside from this, Southeast Asia’s high economic growth and rapid urbanization have resulted in the increased consumption of fossil fuels. By 2040, it is estimated that ASEAN’s overall energy demand will rise by 60 per cent while its carbon dioxide emissions will reach nearly 2.4 gigatons. The increasing energy demand of the region, along with its continuous reliance on fossil fuels, negatively affects the attainment of environmental goals. 

To respond to these constraints, environmental diplomacy can be used as a tool to advance the environmental agenda in Southeast Asia. Environmental diplomacy is defined as international negotiations aiming to solve issues on pollution and environmental degradation. It usually leads to the signing of treaties and/or agreements at various levels—bilateral, multilateral, and global. This is to ensure compliance of the different parties to agreed-upon commitments. While multilateral environmental agreements do not always work, they remain an essential mechanism for pushing for global environmental commitments and actions. For example, the Vienna Convention to Protect the Ozone Layer and its Montreal Protocol was consequential in reducing the production and use of ozone-harming chlorofluorocarbons. Likewise, multilateral environmental diplomacy can also play a key role in preventing the emergence of future pandemics, especially in a region considered a hotspot like Southeast Asia. The following policies can be jointly pursued to strengthen environmental protection in the region: (1) the establishment of a cooperation fund to support environmental research and related capacity-building activities; (2) promotion of green investments and technology transfer programs; and (3) development of an international cooperation framework for environment and disease monitoring. 

In sum, Southeast Asia has been named as a zoonotic hotspot due to a combination of environmental and socio-economic factors. The emergence of these diseases has made tangible the effects of environmental degradation on human health. Due to this, pandemic prevention strategies should include environmental protection as a key element. However, recognizing that not all countries have the capacity to fund environmental initiatives, environmental diplomacy and multilateral mechanisms should be encouraged. Zoonoses are global threats that can cause widespread disruptions as shown by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and, as such, require concerted effort. Pandemic-proofing the world means bolstering environmental protection efforts all over the world, especially in Southeast Asia.

This article was written by Leonardo III M. Jaminola , edited by Lauren Twine, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

 Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.


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