ASEAN in crisis and its preparedness against COVID-19

By Hanim Hamzah | 22 April 2020

Originally published in TheEdge Malaysia, 20 April – 26 April 2020 edition.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, established through the ASEAN Declaration of 8 August 1967 identifies its roots based on accelerating economic growth through the promotion of coordinated regional actions and initiatives – most importantly for regional peace, as the region faced a common fear of communism at the time of ASEAN’s interception. Fast-forward 53 years, and ASEAN member states today face the COVID-19 pandemic as their common enemy; and at the time of writing, the number of cases in the region had exceeded 18,994.1

This article attempts to examine how effective the regional bloc has been in collaborating pandemic preparedness and protocols, and the need for the region to refocus its 2020 lens at decentralised and autonomous production this year to lessen the impact of over-reliance on the global supply chains.

ASEAN’s coordinated initiatives

Several initiatives and actions have been set up by the ASEAN health sector to share technical expertise, risk reports, data analyses, and to ensure the maintenance of international health regulations and standards. (see table)

Regional mechanisms in the ASEAN health sector2

Mechanism ASEAN Member State
ASEAN Plus Three Senior Officials Meeting for Health Development (APT SOMHD) Cambodia
ASEAN Public Health Emergency Operations Centre (PHEOC) Network Malaysia
ASEAN Plus Three Field Epidemiology Training Network (ASEAN+3 FETN) Chaired: Malaysia
Coordinated by Thailand
ASEAN BioDiaspora Virtual Centre for big data analytics and visualisation (ABVC) The Philippines
ASEAN Risk Assessment and Risk Communication Centre (ARARC) Malaysia
Public health laboratories network under the purview of ASEAN Health Cluster 2 on Responding to All Hazards and Emerging Threats All Member States
Regional Public Health Laboratories Network (RPHL) Thailand

Be that as it may, it can be said that from the outbreak of the pandemic, each member state has had to generate their own protocols in terms of social distancing measures, border controls, and suitable economic stimulus to be put in place.

We recognise that ASEAN is made up of diverse economies at various market maturities. However, as ZICOlaw being present in all ten ASEAN countries, we have Regional mechanisms in the ASEAN health sector contract interpretations, force majeure and employer obligations. We have seen that regardless of common, civil or hybrid legal systems of the ten ASEAN jurisdictions, shared opinion and response can be found which allowed us to adopt a common protocol for our clients. Invariably this also applies to how our ASEAN leaders could have better resolved common difficulties and challenges across the region.

The pandemic’s economic impact is heightened given ASEAN’s reliance on China as its second-largest trading partner. While ASEAN states have each issued a variety of fiscal and non-fiscal measures to soften the short-term impact of the pandemic, there appears to be a vacuum in terms of strong leadership for coordinated efforts in the region. It could be said that a region-wide streamlined response framework, or agreed protocols could be better coordinated and put in place instead of the current ad-hoc approach which gave rise to issues like stranded employees and supply chain disruptions.

Social distancing, movement control orders and border controls

As early as 30 January 2020,3 the World Health Organization had identified social distancing as a necessary action to flatten the curve and combat further transmission of the virus. Among the ASEAN countries, the quick and bold actions by the Philippines and Malaysia governments instituting movement and mobility control orders within its shores were arguably, hard decisions made. Further control orders were then instituted requiring borders to close, first partially, thereafter fully, where all overseas travel and arrivals were curbed. While this is commended, it is important to recognise the mobility of ASEAN citizens working within the region. A good example is the reliance on Malaysia’s workforce in Singapore – and the ad-hoc announcement between the two countries on 18 March 20204 and 23 March 20205 respectively, that resulted in confusion and chaos at border control checkpoints. In this regard, closer coordination by Malaysia and Singapore leaders would have been more ideal and effective.

China-reliance and supply chain disruptions

As ASEAN’s second-largest trading partner, with China being closed for most of Q1 2020, it is vital for ASEAN leaders to come together earlier to address supply chain disruptions and the need to self-supply. While globalisation and the co-dependency of an efficient global supply chain has fuelled the growth of ASEAN in recent decades, the lesson learned from these border controls is surely the fragility of the system itself.

We agree that implementing border controls and travel bans are essential. However, overly stringent measures can cause disruptions in supply chains which rely heavily on the movement of goods. In this regard, a delicate balance has to be kept between implementing overarching protectionist measures and preserving national health and safety.

In the ASEAN region, many strong ASEAN brands and businesses could pull together to fill the gap left by China. For example, the world’s biggest medical gloves manufacturer by volume, Top Glove Corp in Malaysia could have, without interruption, continued manufacturing 200 million gloves a day, but had to halt until its packaging suppliers obtained the requisite approval to operate following the shutdown under Malaysia’s movement control order6. A deeper study on the supply and demand capabilities that can be resourced within ASEAN may prove useful to ensure a more self-reliant region, both in times of prosperity and crisis.


Fifty-three years is a considerable amount of time, as an economic block, to have reached some maturity at coming together in a crisis. Past crises would be useful parameters for some measure of preparedness and protocols that can be commonly adopted. Close communication at times of isolation is key, and future focus on self-producing for ASEAN-made and ASEAN-reliant goods, would help further propel the region’s growth in terms of sustainability and creativity.

2 ASEAN Health Sector Efforts in the Prevention, Detection and Response to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
3 Statement on the second meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), WHO
4 PM Muhyiddin calls on people to remain resilient, continue obeying MCO, Prime Minister's Office of Malaysia Official Website
5 Coronavirus: An unprecedented Singapore border closure, in unprecedented times, The Straits Times
6 COVID-19 fight at risk as Malaysia’s medical glove makers struggle with lockdown, CNA

Hanim Hamzah is Regional Managing Partner of ZICOlaw Network, the only premier law firm network with offices in all 10 ASEAN countries. The network comprises independent leading law firms with a full presence in 18 cities across Southeast Asia, a region of over 650 million people and 10 countries. This article represents the author’s opinion and does not necessarily reflect that of the ZICOlaw Network. It also does not serve as substitute for specialist legal advice.

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