Representatives of all 10 ASEAN nations convened virtually this week for a special COVID-19 summit. Here’s how the region’s media covered the story.
ASEAN broke new ground this week when representatives took part in a virtual COVID-19 summit. The 10 member states, plus representatives from China, Japan and South Korea, participated in a video summit to discuss their experiences in dealing with the pandemic and to define a regional action plan. Here’s how the region’s media covered the story.
Media outlets highlighted national leaders’ contributions to the summit
Publications in the region homed in on what their own country’s leaders said at the summit, with Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen all receiving extensive coverage.
In the Philippines, Arianne Merez, writing for ABS-CBN News, reported Duterte’s comments that Southeast Asian nations should continue trading with one another during the pandemic, prioritising medical supplies and equipment. “ASEAN must remain open for trade, crisis or no crisis, as no country can stand alone,” the president said.
The Inquirer, meanwhile, headlined Duterte’s view that ASEAN must do more to both respond to and prepare for future outbreaks of disease. “Warning that the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) would not be the last pandemic, President Rodrigo Duterte pressed Southeast Asian nations to expand the region’s existing mechanisms to respond to public health emergencies,” wrote Julie M Aurelio.
Channel News Asia’s Chew Hui Min centred her report on Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s comments arguing for ASEAN to put in place travel guidelines and trade restrictions. “We each have our own domestic considerations, but clear guidelines would help us take a balanced, rational approach that takes into account both health and economic considerations,” he said.
Like Duterte, Lee stressed the need to work as a unified ASEAN and to continue trading. On a similar theme, The Khmer Times focused on Hun Sen’s comments about boosting economic growth in the region. “ASEAN must accelerate the implementation of existing plans and mechanisms as well as promote regional economic integration, remove non-tariff barriers and enhance overall trade facilitation,” he said.
In The Jakarta Post, Dian Septiari led with a pitch to form an ASEAN COVID-19 fund, proposed by Thailand, to make up for the shortage of medical supplies. She also mentioned that according to World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus, “it was too soon for countries to start claiming victory over the virus outbreak—China, Japan and South Korea have had varying levels of success in mitigating the health crisis.”
Others stressed the need for ASEAN unity and cooperation
ASEAN’s response to the crisis has been much criticised; it must mobilise its efforts more effectively as a group. Channel News Asia interviewed analysts who claimed that “unprecedented” cooperation would be required from all parties to overcome the disease.
Hoang Thi Ha, lead researcher for political and security affairs at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told CNA that the summit added “much-needed political impetus” to ASEAN coordination while Anneliese Wilder-Smith, an infectious disease expert at Singapore’s Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, said the grouping could set an example for others to follow. “I believe that ASEAN will be the first to coordinate and then Europe and other parts of the world could learn from ASEAN,” she said.
An editorial in The Bangkok Post stressed that “it is crucial that the grouping makes its war against the disease its top priority.” It also called for information sharing to ensure the worst-hit people get the care they need and concluded with this call to action: “Member countries must help one another in this battle and prove to the world that, in ASEAN, no one is left behind.”
Some remain sceptical about ASEAN’s ability to change
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc opened the summit by claiming that “It is in these grim hours that the solidarity of the ASEAN community shines like a beacon in the dark.” However, some analysts and journalists would not agree. They argue that ASEAN has made commitments and statements about solidarity in the past without following through on them.
For example, in The Philippine Star, aneditorial highlighted how the SARS outbreak in 2003 ought to have triggered more transparency and encouraged nations to report outbreaks early. “Let’s hope the ASEAN Plus Three commitment to transparency and the release of real-time accurate information on infectious diseases will not be mere rhetoric,” it concluded.
Echoing that sentiment, Dominique Virgil, an Amnesty International researcher, wrote in The Bangkok Post that there is “still much work to do”. She questioned why ASEAN created new bodies to deal with COVID-19 instead of using those set up already before lamenting a lack of focus on human rights.
“The strategies concluded by ASEAN leaders seemed to only touch the surface of discrepancies between each member state in handling the pandemic, without addressing how the distribution will be fair and equal, to all individuals regardless of their background or economic condition,” she argued.
From the beginning of the outbreak, the press urged ASEAN to cooperate and collaborate. As the crisis worsened, those calls got louder. The virtual summit was an opportunity for ASEAN leaders to show they understand what is required. The region waits to see what happens next.