PH pushes for stronger cooperation in ASEAN amid coronavirus pandemic

MANILA, Philippines – Addressing fellow Southeast Asian leaders during the region's first videoconference summit between heads of state, President Rodrigo Duterte called for stronger cooperation among countries to combat the coronavirus outbreak. 

Duterte made this push in a speech delivered during the special Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit on COVID-19, calling the pandemic an "unfolding catastrophe – unprecedented in scale and devastating in impact for all."

"We face a new and different kind of enemy. In the most visceral way, COVID-19 is upending the totality of our way of life…. An effective, strategic response requires that we come together and cooperate even more," Duterte said.

He added: "Retreating from the regional and global connections cannot be the answer. To effectively overcome the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, ASEAN must collaborate and coordinate within our region and beyond."

Collaborate how? The Philippine President called for close collaboration in strengthening the ASEAN's health care system, ensuring food security, supporting research initiatives on finding a COVID-19 vaccine, and preparing for future outbreaks.

On boosting the region's health care system, Duterte called for boosting the production of medicines as well as medical equipment and supplies which should become part of ASEAN trade. 

ASEAN countries, he added, should also support and fast-track vaccine research and development initiatives to help find a cure for the coronavirus. 

Duterte also urged that in terms of food security, trade within the region should remain open during the outbreak. The most urgent priority, he added, was ensuring sufficient rice supply for ASEAN residents.  

"Food security is key in maintaining socioeconomic and political stability, especially at a time of great difficulty for our people. We can ignore this only at our own risk," Duterte said.  

In the Philippines, Duterte faces the growing hunger of millions of poor families left jobless due to the near halt in economic activity resulting from the Luzon coronavirus lockdown. 

Duterte said ASEAN states should also prepare for future outbreaks by putting in place an early warning system for pandemics in the region and instituting a COVID-19 response fund, as proposed by Thailand. 

Why this matters. After some countries initially downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, the total number of coronavirus cases in the region continues to climb to this day.

As of Tuesday, ASEAN's 10 member-states reported a total of 21,185 cases and 931 deaths, according to a tally by the Johns Hopkins University.

Among the 10 countries, the Philippines has the highest number of cases, now at 5,223 with 335 deaths.

The region is also in the unique position of having countries experience a new wave of cases such as in Singapore, which has been hailed for its strategy to combat the outbreak. 

Earlier in March, the World Health Organization urged ASEAN states to "immediately scale up all efforts to prevent the virus from infecting more people" as the situation in the region was evolving "rapidly." – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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