Preparing for the pandemics of the future with a more compact design

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.

If history and the past is any indication, we can suppose that there will be more pandemics in the future and we will need to prepare for them. When the COVID-19 outbreak hit, even countries that were able to control the virus effectively still suffered from the impact, while some ASEAN member states struggled to curb the spread. To offer a glimpse, Indonesia and Malaysia had seen a weekly average of 20,000 new cases per day in August 2021. Myanmar has not finished vaccinating even its health professionals, while Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand saw contracting economic activities. Even with available data and the emerging literature, we still have yet to be able to grasp the negative impact of  the pandemic in its entirety. 

The policy recommendations contained in this article addresses a threefold suggestion for the ASEAN-Australia region to better prepare for future pandemics, as follows. Firstly, strengthening our regional understanding of whom the pandemic affected and how. Secondly, building a multi-partisan institution that lays a fair path to solve political as well as non-political aspects of pandemic related issues such as identification, response, and the distribution of vaccines, among others. Finally, developing embedded response teams in Australia and each ASEAN country.

Firstly, the understanding of the pandemic is segregated amongst different people and countries. While countries with high economic activity have extensive knowledge of the pandemic, developing countries such as Myanmar and Laos may relatively have a more limited understanding of the pandemic due to a variety of factors such as the lack of access to data, or the limited means to interpret them comprehensively. A mutual, common understanding of the pandemic is vital for each country in order for them to devise the appropriate response plan to recover from the pandemic and ensure that it is done so in a safe manner. In the context of COVID-19, a lack of this understanding became one of the factors that contributed to a resurgence of the virus in multiple countries. For instance, Singapore saw an uptick in positive cases though they were considered very successful in managing the first and second waves. Moreover, this is not an isolated event as a similar trend can be observed in other countries such as Australia and Thailand, to name a few. 

Secondly, we need to build a multi-partisan institution (e.g. a proposed name would be the ‘Institution for ASEAN-Australia Regional Pandemic Response or IAARPR’) that will provide us with a collaborative and fair path to address political and non-political aspects of pandemic related issues. While the pandemic is a public health issue, it is also a political one. In the ASEAN and Australia region alone, there are various types and systems of government in place which may affect their respective national policies and result in different approaches to tackle the pandemic. While differing approaches to accommodate circumstantial differences should be encouraged, it must also be well defined and enforced while being reviewed and lawfully modified where applicable. 

For example, if a ruling government of a country restricts international assistance offered for the COVID-19 pandemic, this is not a circumstantial difference. Rather, the decision may be a politically-motivated move that is beneficial to said government. Ultimately, political barriers pose additional challenges to the healthcare response, and make it difficult to formulate policies that will tackle the pandemic objectively. As such, the existence of the IAARPR, which is the aforementioned proposed institution, should serve to provide a path to a strategically integrated plan for all members of the region in a fair, impartial manner. 

Lastly, the embedded response teams that collaboratively work and share updates in  real-time must be developed in each member of the region. These response teams will be the main actors that will implement the policies directed from the IAARPR and the input team to formulate what constitutes as well defined circumstantial differences.

In conclusion, it is important to remember that any pandemic will not be over until all the affected communities worldwide are adequately vaccinated. Meanwhile, the current framework for addressing COVID-19 and other public health emergencies within the ASEAN-Australia region still leaves much room for further improvement. While there are international bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), they are also limited by bureaucracy and lack the capacity to tackle matters effectively in a timely manner. The regional approach explored in this op-ed, is more compact, at least in theory, and thus its design should be experimented.

This article was written by Myat Noe Khant, edited by Dhini Hardiyanti, 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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