A member of parliament receives a Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at the Parliament building in Naypyidaw on 29 January, 2021. (Photo: STR/ AFP)

A member of parliament receives a Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at the Parliament building in Naypyidaw on 29 January, 2021. (Photo: STR/ AFP)

Inoculating Against Covid-19 Nationalism in Southeast Asia

Published

Southeast Asia has not been spared the effects of Covid-19 nationalism. ASEAN member countries can do more to combat vaccine nationalism and hesitancy in the region.

Despite altruistic calls for Covid-19 vaccines to be made accessible and affordable, the distribution of vaccines is being driven by a mix of profits, realpolitik and nationalistic impulses. According to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, a network that includes Amnesty International, Oxfam and Global Justice Now, the rich countries have bought enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations three times over if all the vaccines are approved for use. Southeast Asia has not been spared, and is at risk of Covid-19 nationalism, because the more afflicted countries do not have adequate access to secure enough vaccines to inoculate their population.

Southeast Asian countries have adopted their own strategies to combat the epidemic. However, just like in the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma, their interests might be better served if they work together rather than pursue narrow self-interests. Some ASEAN member states such as Singapore and Brunei are contributing towards the global vaccines access (COVAX) facility. This global effort is geared to ensure that enough vaccines can be distributed to frontline medical workers and the vulnerable in the poorest countries of the world. Six ASEAN member countries – Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam – are eligible for assistance from COVAX, but the assistance might not come to these countries soon enough. A principle of COVAX is that no country will receive vaccines for more than 20 per cent of their population before other countries the COVAX group is funding. COVAX would likely prioritise countries that are poorer than Southeast Asian countries in the initial distribution. If the waves of pandemic attack persist and the economic situation deteriorate further, 2021 might turn out to be a worse year than 2020 for Southeast Asia.

We have often heard about the importance of “ASEAN centrality”, and how in such unprecedented times, this “centrality” has to be maintained or ASEAN could risk becoming irrelevant. To be sure, there are some commendable regional efforts to establish early warning systems and logistical support, keep supply chains open, facilitate business and essential travel, and reopen economies whenever possible. More can be done at the regional level to combat Covid nationalism.

A concerted regional effort to fight Covid-19 in the countries most afflicted might perhaps not overcome the pandemic in Southeast Asia completely, but it would at least make an important contribution to ameliorate the harmful effects of vaccine nationalism and hesitancy.

A key question for Southeast Asia is whether “lower” efficacy medicine will meet minimum scientific standards and are effective in containing the pandemic. Within ASEAN, countries with advanced medical capabilities to assess the pharmaceutical companies’ vaccine trial data and their viability should come together to pool information and produce risk assessments for the region. Producing a fair and forwarding scientific evaluation of vaccines developed by various suppliers might help clarify the options available and ease the decision-making pressure for governments in the region.

Additionally, some ASEAN member states might even be able to help manufacture and distribute, under license with a manufacturer, or make their indigenous vaccine products available for the region on a priority basis. At the same time, more can be done through logistical coordination, particularly through acquisition or pooling of storage capacities, transportation and medical teams on the ground to help with vaccination.

Beyond China, ASEAN could also look to India as a viable vaccine source, as New Delhi accounts for almost 60 per cent of the global vaccine output. ASEAN should leverage its relations with India to seek an increase in vaccine supply to Southeast Asia. If anything, this could be a test to see if the idea of “Indo-Pacific” –  a concept derived by major powers such as Japan and the United States – is of any currency at all, since ASEAN is keen to strengthen ties with India and New Delhi could substantiate its Act East policy by adding a health dimension to its relations with Southeast Asia.

We have often heard that ASEAN is not “built” for solving conflicts, overcoming financial crisis or working collectively in a humanitarian disaster. There is no reason why ASEAN cannot dispel this negative perception. A concerted regional effort to fight Covid-19 in the countries most afflicted might perhaps not overcome the pandemic in Southeast Asia completely, but it would at least make an important contribution to ameliorate the harmful effects of vaccine nationalism and hesitancy.

2021/29