Virtual ASEAN summit puts pandemic high on agenda

Nov 13 , 2020. 10 hours ago – 00:10 KYODO NEWS

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations annual summit is held via videoconference on Nov. 12, 2020. (VNA/Kyodo)

HANOI – The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ended their annual summit Thursday held virtually due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic with some new coronavirus-related initiatives introduced.

Discussions focused on how the region should deal with the global public health crisis and revive member economies badly affected by it, officials said.

The summit of the 10-member grouping was the first in a series of related gatherings to be held via videoconference through Sunday, including a meeting during which 15 Asia-Pacific countries are expected to sign a long-awaited economic deal.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has taken over a million lives, upended our daily life, and threatened to reverse the social and economic progress accrued over decades,” Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong told other ASEAN leaders in his opening remarks.

Trong said the people in member countries expect their leaders to adopt “more effective and vigorous means of cooperation in curbing new waves of infection” and help them “return to normal life.”

At the summit, the leaders reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening collective efforts to fight COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to a draft chairman’s statement seen ahead of the one-day meeting. As of Thursday night, however, the statement had not been issued.

At a press conference late Thursday, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the collective efforts mentioned by Trong include the ASEAN Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies for Public Health Emergencies, which was launched after the summit.

The reserve aims to help procure crucial medical supplies and equipment for frontline response and prevention efforts in all member states.

The leaders, according to Retno, also adopted a consolidated strategy to emerge more resilient and stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, dubbed the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework.

They also announced another COVID-19 initiative to establish the ASEAN Center for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases.

Retno quoted Indonesian President Joko Widodo as saying “Indonesia is ready to host the center.”

With funding from the Japanese government amounting to $500 million, the center will serve as a regional resource hub to strengthen ASEAN’s capacity to prepare for public health emergencies and emerging diseases.

A regional travel corridor arrangement to facilitate essential business travel within ASEAN member states while controlling the spread of the virus was also agreed by the leaders, Retno said.

Proposed by Indonesia, the travel corridor would show ASEAN’s commitment to reviving the economy “without sacrificing health,” she said.

A common set of pre-departure and post-arrival health and safety measures will be developed for the travel arrangement, according to the travel corridor document released at the end of the summit.

Regarding the arrangement, Singapore Education Minister Lawrence Wong has said it would be difficult to adopt a single measure for all ASEAN countries, given that they each face different challenges with the epidemic.

Among the other topics up for discussion at the summit were efforts to manage territorial disputes in the South China Sea and ways to facilitate the stalled repatriation of Rohingya Muslim refugees to Buddhist-majority Myanmar from neighboring Bangladesh.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

CR:KYODO NEWS