We are witnessing an unprecedented global health crisis due to the spread of the Coronavirus or COVID-19. It has shaken the world economy and society in every country. Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and India are also badly affected by the pandemic like many other countries. The ASEAN-India relationship has transformed in recent years. India attaches great importance to her partnership with ASEAN countries, giving the highest importance to ‘ASEAN centrality’ as an essential anchor for regional development, peace and stability in the region. Therefore, it is of utmost importance for ASEAN and India to reinforce its partnership amid the rare disruption due to COVID-19.
As part of India’s ongoing engagement with various world leaders on the virus, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and his cabinet ministers have spoken to several leaders in the region. While ASEAN leaders met virtually and pledged to form a joint front against COVID-19, so far there is no ASEAN-India virtual summit on the emerging situation. Though robust cooperation between ASEAN and India is growing, there are some vital issues which require enormous humanitarian assistance operations in addition to intense healthcare cooperation.
The situation in some ASEAN countries is dangerous due to an ill-equipped health care system with limited testing facilities and a lack of resources. The special ASEAN Virtual Summit on 14 April 2020 generated some hope as ASEAN leaders came together and reiterated a united front through a comprehensive policy and a mechanism for joint action.
The declaration of the Summit emphasised strengthening public health cooperation measures to contain the pandemic and protect the people. It also talked about enhancing practical cooperation among ASEAN defence establishments to organise information and best practice sharing activities, and with external partners, bilaterally or multilaterally, promoting scientific cooperation and enhancing professional linkages (including the holding of a table-top exercise on public health emergencies response by the ASEAN Center of Military Medicine (ACMM) and the Network of ASEAN Chemical, Biological and Radiological Defence Experts).
Other neighbouring countries including India have reaffirmed their commitment to enhance cooperation and mutual support to control and contain the spread of the pandemic, and to strengthen joint efforts toward post-pandemic recovery. India and ASEAN have existing mechanisms of collaboration in the area of health and pandemic preparedness and response, which includes capacity building to strengthen areas on surveillance, laboratory networking, human resource capacities and information networking; working together to develop affordable quality medicines and traditional medicines that is accessible to the people; and sharing of information and exchange of experts in the field of public health, medicine, health education and promotion.
India needs to beef-up its collaborations in these fields. In fact, India is already working with ASEAN partners with continued supply of life saving drugs and food items, extending support in the evacuation of citizens among others. India, on the other hand, is also receiving support from ASEAN countries. For example, Singapore has provided testing kits and other essential equipment. State governments in India are procuring automatic RNA extract test machines from Singapore, which are vital for tracking the infection.
A coordinated approach is not only essential but also the need of the hour. First and foremost is the need to isolate and quarantine infected persons with not only strict monitoring and enforcement but also by making citizens equal stakeholder in this battle against COVID-19 by educating them through all mediums of communication.
Lockdown and quarantine measures are proving effective to arrest the spread of the pandemic, but it has resulted in severe economic disruptions. Therefore, detailed discussion among leaders is needed to come out with coordinated strategy to deal with the economic ramifications. There must be smooth flow of essential commodities, such as foods, critical agricultural products, lifesaving drugs, medical equipment etc. supported by a robust supply chain with least bureaucratic hurdles in their movement.
Key and basic sectors of the economy such as power plants, information and communication services, pharmaceutical units, banking and financial services, industries manufacturing essential goods need to function. It must be ensured their optimum utilization and safety measures are being followed with minimum intrusion. The economic scenario is grim as manufacturing, aviation, tourism, and hospitality are the hardest hit in the region.
ASEAN and India could enhance their cooperation in the areas of research and development, capacity building, health services, pharmaceutical trade and manufacturing capabilities for drugs and diagnostics. Further, India, under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) Programme, could expand ITEC into new innovative areas using digital technologies, for example, in the field of tele-education and tele-medicine project ‘eVidya Bharti e Arogya Bharti’ (eVBAB) etc.
Coordination to Repatriate Citizens
The immediate task, however, for India and ASEAN is to deal with their citizens who are stuck due to travel restrictions. India has extended help to ASEAN countries who wanted to bring back their citizens in India. Similarly, there are thousands of Indians who are stuck in various ASEAN countries. Indian missions are working punishing hours to extend all necessary support and are overstretched. They are not only coordinating essential medical supplies and other emergency needs, but also extending all kinds of support from food to accommodation to Indian citizens who are stuck in different countries.
Perhaps, India is gearing up to begin one of the biggest evacuation exercises to bring back its stranded citizens from all over the world, including from ASEAN region. It requires meticulous planning, resources, logistical support and assistance from partner countries. All Indian citizens are eagerly waiting for India’s policy announcement to facilitate such an ambitious operation so that they can get out of the hardship they are facing due to the implications of COVID-19. They are optimistic that “Modi hai to mumkin hai” (It’s possible when Modi is around).
A pandemic like COVID-19, which is raging around the world with devastating effects, causes massive economic disruptions and extracts a heavy toll on human lives. It has to be stopped through an active partnership between ASEAN member states, their partner countries, international organizations, civil societies and local bodies. The road to recovery and stability would be long and torturous. Therefore, leaders need to act together with a humane approach and pragmatism in their fight against COVID-19.
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