H.E. Kung Phoak, Deputy Secretary General of ASEAN for ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (Photo: People's Daily/ Xu Wei)
The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a pandemic. The global community is in the pandemic phase of the COVID-19. This was declared by the World Health Organization in 11 March 2020. So, where are we now, ASEAN?
Where are we now, ASEAN?
We are in a storm of mitigation and response to COVID-19.
Since the very beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, ASEAN Member States have acted with expeditious decisiveness and timely actions to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.
The ASEAN Health Sector cooperation activated national and regional preparedness and response mechanisms for public health threats after receiving the report from health colleagues of the People’s Republic of China about a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause on 3 January. These resulted in the immediate detection of cases, delivery of medical care; conduct of contact tracing; and scaling-up of public awareness and risk communication.
Cooperation by the ASEAN health officials and experts with China health counterparts were further enhanced through further technical exchanges and assistance via special video conferences and real-time sharing of updates at national and regional levels.
Commending China efforts in stopping COVID-19
Amidst this current global response to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation, there is also the prudent need to commend the People’s Republic of China for their handling of the outbreak of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) which originated in Wuhan, in the central province of Hubei in December 2019; and also to the valuable support they are providing to countries in different regions that are battling the disease.
China immediately responded to the rapidly evolving outbreak situation through a combination of prevention and control mechanisms which were rigorously implemented involving various sectors and accorded the highest leadership attention and commitment. It should be noted that China’s bold and aggressive containment measures characterized by cancellation or suspension of mass gatherings, postponement of reopening of schools, suspension of public transport and wearing of mask in public, among others. These has been a huge sacrifice by China as these measures implemented during the Lunar New Year period and affected around 500 million people and their economy.
Everyone has to be reminded that when China learned about the emergence of a new pathogen causing disease to human populations through the clusters of pneumonia cases, they immediately reported this to the World Health Organization (WHO) and thereafter shared updates on a daily basis, as well as immediately shared to WHO and the international community the full genome sequence of the virus when they identified it on 7 January.
I strongly believe that these actions from China did not only result to the encouraging signs that we are seeing now --- with very few cases being reported at local transmission level since 20 March and with a continuous downward trend of their epidemiological curve until at current time wherein seeing people in Wuhan are already coming out from their residences as the city is easing the lockdown and plans of liftin it altogether. Cities across the country are also moving towards restoring production and resuming to normal life. These are all signs which mean that the outbreak can be controlled, and we can win this fight.
China and ASEAN health sector cooperation in COVID-19
I have to emphasise that we have to laud China for actively cooperating with ASEAN in addressing the outbreak regionally. Since the start of the outbreak in Wuhan, focal points at the National Health Commission (NHC) of China shared critical information and updates on a daily basis to the ASEAN Health Sector, through the ASEAN Secretariat. These were then circulated to senior health officials of the ASEAN Member States, as well as Japan and Republic of Korea, through the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) health cooperation mechanism.
In the same token, when other countries detected COVID-19 cases or have updates in their response, these were shared and circulated to the APT, and more widely to the ASEAN Emergency Operations Centre Network for public health emergencies, consisting of communicable disease prevention and control officials of ASEAN Member States and which is led by Malaysia.
China also engaged in video conferences with APT senior health officials which exchanged on the latest national situation and reaffirmed cooperation strategies and priorities to collectively respond to the outbreak, and with the ASEAN EOC Network which exchanged on the clinical management of cases, including progress on treatment trials and epidemiological studies conducted in China.
These video conferences resulted in the sharing of technical guidelines on diagnosis, treatment, risk communications or epidemiological studies, as well as the priority needs and gaps which other Member States and partners could support to sustain national responses. We do need to acknowledged China’s bilateral support to many affected countries globally, including some ASEAN Member States and the ASEAN Secretariat, consisting of masks, protective gears, essential medicines and testing kits.
We should continue to engage with China for possible further cooperation in the region since outbreaks continue to be unabated.
Stay Strong China, Stay Stronger ASEAN
I have to point out that the measures instituted by China has slowed down the spread of the virus, and enabled countries to gain time to get ready and to ramp up their own response for the potential importation of the virus in their territories. This was important for the countries of ASEAN which are very close to China and are popular destinations for Chinese tourists.
I could not imagine how many cases the countries in the region would have seen and documented if China did not initiate containment measures which were earlier considered by some quarters as draconian.
The adage of “Stay Strong ASEAN” or “Stay Strong China” are not mere words or sound-off bytes for media or political mileage. It should also imply that we should become stronger by enhancing cooperation and subsequently strengthening national capacities through open, trusting and transparent partnerships. Geopolitical and geophysical differences should not hamper or dampen collective efforts in saving lives regardless of race, religion, borders and belief.
We should be encouraged by China’s interest to cooperate in health with ASEAN and other countries in other regions in the long term. These would include strengthening regional preparedness and response capacity for public health emergencies, which has been in the agenda of the ASEAN Health Sector and other relevant partners.
There are now proposals put forward to conduct forums to share and document good practices and lessons from the COVID-19 response, trainings for health workers on health emergency preparedness and response, and to further strengthen the regional health platforms, as soon as the world has controlled the spread of the virus.
These proposals are timely as the ASEAN Health Sector reviews their current strategic plans and programmes, and as other countries assess its current response and future preparedness and prevention vis-à-vis lessons learned with the COVID-19 situation. Further, the ASEAN-China memorandum of understanding on cooperation on health cooperation is also due for renewal in 2020. This should leverage more collaborative opportunities that can be maximized in the near futures once there is a resolution of the pandemic.
Stay stronger ASEAN with China is not only realized at the political level in the region but also very much extended to the welfare and well-being for all peoples in the region at all ages.
The author is the Deputy Secretary General of ASEAN for ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community