WHO urges more aggressive measures against COVID-19: How they covered it

Jakarta by nightPhoto: Global Panorama

A look at how the media responded to the biggest story of the week.

The message could not have been clearer: “The World Health Organization (WHO) today (March 17) called on member states in Southeast Asia region to urgently scale-up aggressive measures to combat COVID-19, as confirmed cases cross 480, and the disease claims eight lives,” it announced.

The warning came amid a sharp rise in coronavirus deaths driven mainly by foreign nationals returning from abroad and a delay in data reporting from previous weeks. Here is how the region’s media responded to the latest developments as Southeast Asia braces itself for another wave of the pandemic.

There are fears healthcare systems could be overcome…

Responding to WHO’s announcement, Channel News Asia reported that healthcare systems in the region might not be able to cope with a steep rise in cases. It described the “drastic measures” nations have already put in place in a bid to control the spread of the virus but offered a gloomy prognosis. “There are concerns that weaker public health care systems in many Southeast Asian countries will be unable to cope with a major outbreak,” it warned.

Meanwhile, Reuters stated that the Malaysian government fears a surge in new cases unless people do all they can to minimise contact with others. “We have a slim chance to break the chain of COVID-19 infections,” it quoted Noor Hisham Abdullah, director-general of Health Malaysia, as saying. “Failure is not an option here. If not, we may face a third wave of this virus, which would be greater than a tsunami, if we maintain a ‘so what’ attitude.”

The Reuter’s article also highlighted criticism of Indonesia for not testing enough potential cases early on, masking the true extent of the problem. However, according to health ministry official Achmad Yurianto, the government hopes to contain the outbreak by the end of the month.

…and there could be consequences in other areas

Governments all over the world have scrambled to release emergency funding in a bid to keep their economies from sliding into recession, but it could be to no avail. According to ratings agency S & P Global, a recession is now “guaranteed”.

David Hutt, writing in The Diplomat, argued that the current public health crisis will have continued knock-on effects on the region’s economies and eventually on the political outlook. He predicted that autocratic governments—without strong economic growth figures to bolster their positions—will not hesitate to employ repressive mechanisms and clamp down on free speech.

“Worse may follow, however, if Southeast Asian economies tank, infection cases spike, and the all-in-it-together mentality that appears to be sustaining across much of the region, especially those that have been on lockdown for some weeks, starts to unravel,” he concluded.

Philippines kid with face mask wuhan virus
Photo: Rainier Ampongan

ASEAN’s unity has come under scrutiny

It is worth clarifying that WHO Southeast Asia only includes Indonesia and Thailand; the other eight ASEAN nations come under WHO’s West Pacific Regional Office (WPRO). The countries with the highest death rates in the region are split between the two offices (on March 20, Indonesia’s was 8.4%, the Philippines’ 7.5%). The global average is estimated to be 3.4%.

Writing in The Jakarta Post, Dian Septiari noted that the advice from the Southeast Asia Regional Office is more urgent than anything WPRO issued despite the numbers suggesting those countries should also to be putting more stringent measures in place.

Quoting Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s confirmation of an investigation into whether hundreds of its citizens were exposed to the virus in Malaysia, she went on to highlight how ASEAN members have engaged in “unproductive quarrels” while fighting the outbreak. Further proof, if any were needed, that COVID-19 is a threat not just to global health, but to the very fabric of Southeast Asian society.

Indonesia and Singapore clashed over information sharing. Some countries moved quicker than others to lock down areas and close borders, causing additional inter-government friction. “These incidents, as well as the different policy decisions that ASEAN countries have made in response to the pandemic, have served to underline the discrepancy between neighbouring countries and cast doubt on the feasibility of a united regional response, despite the group already having several response mechanisms in place,” she wrote.

A week is a long time in politics; it feels even longer in the grip of a global pandemic. Just ten days ago, the WHO praised Singapore’s efforts in containing the initial phase of the outbreak, but even there they are now battling a spike in cases.

That suggests there is worse to come for the rest of Southeast Asia and illustrates why WHO Southeast Asia is so adamant about stepping up the fight. As the Regional Director Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh put it, “Urgent and aggressive measures are the need of the hour. We need to act now.” If it was not already, it is high time all nations—ASEAN or otherwise—heeded her advice.