Coping with Covid-19: The Unfulfilled Promise of Regional Governance

- By Jürgen Rüland (University of Freiburg)

- Article online available here

Originating in late 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the Covid-19 virus spread rapidly, reaching the proportions of a global pandemic within weeks. As viruses defy borders, nation states are unable to control them single-handedly. Thus, on first sight, collective action and multilateral cooperation seem to present the best prospects to combat pandemics effectively. Yet, viewed with hindsight, international organizations largely failed in the fight against Covid-19. The World Health Organization responded slowly and so far proved unable to channel badly needed vaccines into poor countries. Regional organizations such as the European Union could not prevent panicking members from reneging on regional core norms such as the freedom of movement or coordinate national emergency measures in a way that their detrimental impact on neighboring countries was kept in checks. National egoism trumped regional solidarity.

No more persuasive was the performance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), often celebrated as a model for regional cooperation in the Global South. Founded in 1967, members of ASEAN are Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. While ASEAN admirers highlight the fact that the grouping alerted member countries to the emerging health threat early on, critics deplore that tangible collective action was unfolding only reluctantly. They point out that, although Southeast Asia was less affected than other regions, member states resorted to unilateral national responses such as the closing of borders, travel bans, temporary export bans on food and medical equipment and the expansion of non-tariff trade barriers.

Noteworthy collective responses only started with an ASEAN emergency summit in mid-April 2020, three months after the virus had entered the region. The summit was followed by a digital meeting with ASEAN Plus Three countries China, Japan and South Korea that generated support for the region’s less developed nations. The subsequent flurry of meetings culminated in the 37th ASEAN Summit in November 2020. The summit agreed on an Economic Recovery Plan, an ASEAN Response Fund, the creation of a Japanese and Australian funded ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases, the commitment to exchange information and best practices and the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Yet the Economic Recovery Plan was mainly of declaratory nature, commitments to the ASEAN Response Funds were disappointing, while RCEP, despite being the world’s largest free trade area, remained unambitious. ASEAN also refrained from joint action in the procurement of vaccines.

While ASEAN collaboration to combat Covid-19 may help to mitigate future pandemics, it did little to alleviate the crisis as it was unfolding. Ibrahim Almuttaqi, ASEAN expert from the Jakarta-based Habibie Center was quoted by the South China Morning Post just about this issue: “ASEAN has tended to only evolve after a crisis rather than during the crisis itself”. Donations of equipment by the region’s better-off countries to ASEAN’s poorer member states are more symbolic than tangible and blur the fact that Covid-19 accelerated the process of democratic backsliding in Southeast Asia. Many governments treated the crisis as a security threat. Emergency measures thus strengthened the influence of security forces, while markedly curtailing the space for political dissent. The shrinking space for civil society engagement does not bode well for transforming ASEAN into a “people-oriented” organization, an objective stated by the ASEAN Charter, the grouping’s quasi-constitutional document enacted in 2008.

Covid-19 responses also had detrimental effects on socially weak groups. Occasional cash transfers for needy groups could not compensate for the job losses caused by quarantine measures, which disproportionately affected millions of labor migrants and informal sector workers. These groups were also the ones most vulnerable to police and military harassment and violence perpetrated in executing lock downs.

One of the disheartening legacies of Covid-19 is thus that it did not give a boost to international cooperation. The opposite seems to be the case: Covid-19 accelerated the erosion of global and regional governance structures, a trend observable since two decades.

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