As published in Viet Nam Investment Review on 5 June 2021
It is timely to be discussing the fight against COVID-19 now, as a new wave of outbreaks occurs across ASEAN region. In April and May ASEAN states most heavily affected such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines have continued to record thousands of new cases per day. Meanwhile, Thailand has now surpassed 100,000 cases and Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are facing their most challenging outbreaks to date.
As this current wave of outbreaks takes hold, countries are understandably tightening borders even further. In recent weeks Vietnam has seen an increase of both legal and illegal cross-border movements from neighbouring countries facing a resurgent pandemic.
And while countries are dealing with this dangerous new surge in COVID-19, other challenges continue to unfold, including the current situation in Myanmar and new cross-border flows of people into Thailand.
The world has also witnessed an unprecedented global effort to develop new vaccines at breakneck speed. The COVAX facility led by the World Health Organization (WHO) has also shown the potential for a multilateral and equitable approach to distribution, with more than 170 countries signing up.
Simultaneously, however, we are seeing the disappointing reality of short-sighted national self-interest that is dividing the world into vaccine haves and have-nots. It has been argued that the pandemic has split the world in two, as rich countries monopolise vaccine supplies that in some cases exceed the quantities needed to vaccinate their entire population several times over. The WHO also reported that vaccine supplies in low and lower-middle income countries have not even been sufficient to immunise health and care workers, and vaccine supplies to COVAX fall far short of both commitments and needs.
And yet we know that until the whole world is secure from COVID-19, no one country will be secure. New variants will continue to emerge, testing our best defences, and posing an ongoing threat to our collective hard-won gains against the pandemic.
Across ASEAN member states, the rate of the population receiving at least one dose ranges from around 33 down to 1 per cent. Given the constraints on vaccine supplies and roll out, and the concern over new variants, many analysts predicted that borders within the region will remain largely closed through 2022 with the exception of travel bubbles. Vietnam has set up a $1.1 billion vaccine fund as well as efforts to accelerate the urgent procurement of vaccines from multiple sources are important steps for the next phase of the response.
Developing national production of vaccines will also be important. I commend Vietnam’s initiative to apply for WHO approval to become a potential hub for production of mRNA-based vaccine for Vietnam and possibly for the region.
Vietnam’s triple-A response
The pandemic emerged in a world that was already grappling with geopolitical tensions that have some commentators referring to a new Cold War, with seemingly ever-widening divisions between different groups in society, and a growing mistrust threatening the social contract between citizens and governments in many parts of the world.
Fortunately, in Vietnam, we have seen what is possible when a government and an entire nation places health and protecting people at the very centre of its COVID-19 response. We have seen the tireless efforts of health workers and frontline teams carrying out tracking, tracing and testing. We have seen effective messaging mobilising the whole of society to work together to defeat the virus. Supporting these efforts, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has worked with the Ministry of Health to procure essential supplies and equipment and to develop public health messages in ethnic minority languages and sign language.
The UNDP has contributed to this innovation through new standards and quality assurance for domestic production of essential protective equipment. And we have seen the positive dividends of social solidarity and transformative innovation, from rice ATMs and zero-VND grocery stores that provided essential supplies during the first wave of the pandemic, to the support for Vietnam’s dragon fruit farmers when their livelihoods were taking a battering due to border closures.
Vietnam’s pandemic response provides an excellent example of what we at the UNDP call “triple A” governance – that is anticipatory, agile, and adaptive. Putting health first has had a tangible economic dividend, with Vietnam the only ASEAN country, and one of very few countries worldwide, to register economic growth in 2020.
The UNDP’s study Citizens’ Opinions of and Experiences with Government Responses to COVID-19 Pandemic in Vietnam in 2020 confirmed widespread public support here for the government’s response, in sharp contrast to the trust deficit in governments being registered in many parts of the world.
The pandemic has accelerated existing challenges, sharpening questions that were already been asked about global and regional commitments to multilateralism, to joining together for effective actions to achieve Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and to taking meaningful action on critical regional and global challenges including climate change, increasingly complex natural disasters, and plastic pollution.
The UNDP’s global research identifies broad options facing the world, including a ‘high damage’ scenario, which would push an additional 207 million people into poverty worldwide by 2030, and increase female headcount poverty by 102 million.
It has also identified another option, the SDG Push scenario, that illustrates how a concerted effort can accelerate global progress even when accounting for the pandemic. This ambitious yet feasible scenario would lift an additional 146 million people out of extreme poverty worldwide, narrow the gender poverty gap, and reduce the female poverty headcount by 74 million. The SDG Push scenario is an opportunity for ASEAN member states to invest in a decade of action, resetting the development path of people and the planet for a fairer, greener, and more resilient future.
A hopeful future
Under Vietnam’s chairing in 2020, ASEAN demonstrated the ability to move rapidly to online consultations as the pandemic took hold, and ASEAN leaders signalled important collective actions including establishing the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund, launching the ASEAN Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies for Public Health Emergencies, establishing the ASEAN Strategic Framework for Public Health Emergencies, and adopting the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework and Implementation Plan.
The plan to establish the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases was also announced, and Vietnam has made a strong pitch to host this centre. If Vietnam succeeds, and we hope it does, this would be the first such regional centre in the country, and an important step forward for ASEAN.
Vietnam is currently preparing for a possible outbreak of up to 30,000 cases nationwide, is concerned about the global emergence of new and more contagious and deadly variants and the complicated evolution of the pandemic in neighbouring countries, and has thus undertaken preemptive preparedness measures including strengthened border controls and setting up field hospitals in border regions.
At the same time, Vietnam has strongly signalled its support for its neighbours, donating a total of $8 million, four million face masks, 300,000 N95 respirators, 1,000 ventilators, and other supplies to Cambodia and Laos. Vietnam has also sent a team of 35 medical experts to support the COVID-19 response in Laos.
Whether borders only reopen when countries have been able to vaccinate their populations, or more quickly, for example through travel bubbles and vaccine passports, the long-term objective of returning to more open ASEAN borders remains clear. This was strongly emphasised by Vietnam in its capacity of ASEAN 2020 chair in the concluding statement of the 37th ASEAN Summit last November.