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< COVID-19 and ASEAN >


The outbreak of the coronavirus, which began in China earlier this year, grew into a pandemic that threatens the entire human race just in three months. An early prediction that the spread of the virus would not reach the regions with high temperatures went awry as COVID-19 struck China, Europe, the United States, and the Southeast Asian nations, in sequence.


It is yet unknown what scars the coronavirus will leave in Southeast Asia. Each ASEAN member state is responding to the pandemic in its own methods, which are driven by the economic and cultural diversity of the ten countries. The following is a summary of the current responses to the COVID-19 crisis of the 10 ASEAN member states, as of last week.


■ 10 ASEAN Member States responding to COVID-19


Among the ASEAN member states, Singapore and Vietnam are considered most successful for their early and immediate responses to the coronavirus. Since the first outbreak of the epidemic in Wuhan, Singapore imposed entry bans on international flights from China, launched mandatory screening of individuals’ temperatures in public places, and carried out wide-range free testing of potential cases based on contact tracing. These proactive measures allowed Singapore to prevent a mass infection that could occur in the nature of dense city-states, while businesses and schools remain open.


Vietnam, like Singapore, has launched a rapid initial response. When Vietnam was reported with its first confirmed case in February from a worker returned from Wuhan, the government implemented strict measure to quarantine the area to prevent the spread. Since then, Vietnam’s aggressive containment appeared to be successful with no additional confirmed cases for several weeks; however, after an outbreak of mass infection at one of the largest hospitals in Hanoi, the government has once again taken strong measures, including employing social distancing and prohibiting all international flights to land in Vietnam.


In Malaysia, the transmission of COVID-19 was accelerated when a large religious gathering of over 16,000 people at a mosque outside of Kuala Lumpur took place in February. As of April 2, Malaysia has been one of the hardest hits in Southeast Asia with 2,908 confirmed cases. Faced with the COVID-19 crisis on his first month in office, the new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin instituted a lockdown to curb the spread, only allowing essential visits to doctors, pharmacies and grocery stores. Brunei Darussalam has the highest infection rate per capita in ASEAN?most of its cases stemming from the Malaysian mosque event. While implementing strict quarantines, Brunei imposes a fine up to BND 10,000 or 6-month imprisonment for violating self-quarantine rules.


COVID-19 situation in Indonesia is quite bleak. With a large population with high density in urban areas, and the upcoming fasting period of Ramadan starting at the end of April, and the ‘Eid Al Fitr’ festival followed right after in May, Indonesia is expected be at an escalated risk of contagion into the entire country. In response, the Indonesian government has declared a state of emergency, shuttered restaurants, movie theaters, and entertainment centers and suspended all religious activities. Also, there is a possibility of restricting traveling during the upcoming holiday season. President Jokowi, however, is seeking practical solutions through ‘regional quarantines’ rather than a complete blockade in consideration of social solidarity and financial instability.


Despite taking a cautious approach to entry bans in the early stage of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Philippines deployed soldiers to enforce the quarantine of the entire island of Luzon, including the Metro Manila, as the number of confirmed cases increased. Thailand has declared a state of emergency until April 30 in the wake of a surge in confirmed cases in major cities since March, banning foreigners from entering the country, while temporarily shutting down all department stores, shopping malls and theaters in major cities.


Cambodia imposed an entry ban on arrivals from the United States, Iran, Italy, Spain, France, and Germany as the coronavirus spread through Europe and the United States. On the contrary, flights to and from China are still operating?even the China-Cambodia joint military exercise proceeded on March 15 as scheduled. In February, Prime Minister Hun Sen visited China and delivered medical masks and protective suits to China. In response, China recently dispatched a medical team to Sihanoukville, a port city in southwestern Cambodia, to help combat COVID-19.


There were concerns with Myanmar and Lao PDR, two countries bordering China, since the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, but there are only about 10 confirmed cases reported in each of the two countries. Considering a relatively less-developed public healthcare system, humanitarian aid from the international community will be needed in preparation for an upcoming surge in the number of confirmed cases.


■ ASEAN’s Joint Response and Cooperation with South Korea


Crisis often brings solidarity in the process of overcoming the ordeal, and that may lead to new opportunities. In particular, ASEAN had constructed collaborative mechanisms by overcoming the previous crises together?from the 1997 financial meltdown to the grain market crisis in the 2000s and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. The Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization Agreement(CMIM), the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve(APTERR) and the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management Centre(AHA) are the mechanisms that had been developed in response to its cooperative measures.


Co-responding to SARS in 2003, H1N1 in 2009, Ebola in 2014, MERS in 2015, and Zika virus in 2017, ASEAN has strengthened its responsiveness to infectious diseases. For COVID-19, situational updates are shared within ASEAN through video conferences among the high-level officials of the health sectors in the region, led by the ASEAN Emergency Operations Centre Network for public health emergencies (ASEAN EOC Network) and the ASEAN Secretariat. Under the theme of this year’s ASEAN Chair (Vietnam), "Cohesive and Responsive," an effective response to the COVID-19 crisis in cohesion may yield great progress in solidifying unity in the ASEAN Community.


Meanwhile, border closures and entry bans imposed by the Southeast Asian countries in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are bringing concerns over the potential negative impact on building the “people-centered community of peace and prosperity” between ASEAN and Korea, as agreed at the 2019 ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit. This is due to the fact that economic and cultural exchanges, are faced with an inevitable hindrance for the time being between the two regions.


Nevertheless, as South Korea's response to the pandemic is getting attention by the global society as an exemplary case, cooperation with the health sectors of ASEAN is expected to increase. Myanmar, Lao PDR, and Brunei Darussalam had already requested President Moon Jae-in to share South Korea’s experience in responding to the coronavirus; Korean government is also in preparation to ship quarantine supplies to Indonesia. Further, a virtual summit of ASEAN+3 is expected to be held shortly to respond to COVID-19 in a collective and efficient manner with ASEAN.


The COVID-19 crisis is a non-traditional security threat that transcends international borders?it is best resolved through cooperation and solidarity among the global society.

Making collaborative actions and deepening the level of cooperation with ASEAN in combating the COVID-19 situations would bring Korea a step closer to building a “people-centered community of peace and prosperity.”

The 7th ASEAN Connectivity Forum [ASEAN ISSUE #2] COVID-19 Outbreak and ASEAN+3 Regional Cooperation