By Zarina Zainuddin and Muhammad Sinatra illustrate

Southeast Asia might be facing its greatest external challenge since the foundation of ASEAN.  Interestingly, it did not emanate from the longstanding major power competition, or disputes and disunity between member states – as many have predicted recently.

The weight of the COVID-19 challenge is taking its toll on ASEAN Member States (AMS). As of 27 March 2020, over 5700 cases and 170 deaths were reported with the recovery rate stood around 10 percent across the region.

The dramatic worsening of the pandemic in Southeast Asia over the past few weeks have forced AMS to impose drastic measures. Due to the varying degrees of threat severity, however, both governments and their citizens have responded differently.

Using the WHO-devised three-pronged comprehensive approach as a standard, we can clearly see where these points of difference lie.

First, we have movement restriction orders. There is a wide range of restriction measures imposed by AMS, spanning from a national lockdown, to a partial lockdown, to no lockdown and to travel bans. – k

The second prong is testing with AMS differing in terms of testing volume. Indonesia, ASEAN’s most populated country, had only tested 2,863 individuals by 26 March 2020, despite its frighteningly high mortality rate and steady increase of positive cases. On the other hand, Malaysia with its highest infection case region-wise, has pledged to exponentially increase the number of testing following the emergence of a second wave of infection. Singapore,  meanwhile, has engaged in aggressive testing and this has helped limiting the spread of infection.

The attitudes and behaviour of citizens’ is the third element. While “work from home” and social distancing seem to be observed by citizens in some areas; others remain ignorant, or worse, stubborn. The spread of disinformation is also notable during this period, with 43 people being investigated for disseminating fake news in Malaysia alone. The mass gathering in Seri Petaling mosque was also an evidence of citizens from across ASEAN not taking the looming danger of COVID-19 seriously, despite previous warnings.

The table below summarises the general situation and impact of COVID-19 in all AMS as of 27 March 2020:






Policies/Actions taken






Imposing a nation-wide lockdown; banning international travel; shutting down all but essential services and operation; accelerating rapid testing; injecting economic stimulus;






Declaring a state of emergency; banning international travel; encouraging physical distancing; encouraging work from home; cancelling mass gatherings; closing public places; accelerating rapid testing; injecting economic stimulus; converting establishments to medical facilities; etc.






Increasing travel barriers; imposing movement restriction measures; encouraging work from home; ceasing port call from cruise vessels; suspending most flights operated by Singapore Airlines






Declaring a state of emergency; closing public places; increasing travel barriers to certain nationalities; closing land borders; dictating a shutdown of the economy with exceptions; injecting economic stimulus


The Philippines




Imposing a partial lockdown; cancelling all domestic flights; suspending stock market, bond and currency trading; suspending the issuance of visa






Increasing travel barriers to certain nationalities; suspending all international flights for Vietnam Air; suspending all domestic flights; dictating the closure of restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City


Brunei Darussalam




Increasing travel barriers to certain nationality; banning international travels to its citizens and foreign residents in the country






Banning international travel to certain nationalities; closing schools in Phnom Penh






Closing golden triangle borders with Myanmar and China; suspending all flights from China






Increasing travel barriers to certain nationality; imposing quarantine on those returning from abroad; conducting health checks along its border with China; allocating fund to purchase medical necessities

Correct as of 27 March 2020, 03.00 pm. From various sources

At the time of writing, it appears that ASEAN countries are divided into two tiers. Those in the top five recorded over 500 cases each, while less than 150 cases were logged in each of the bottom five. Deaths are also registered in the top five countries, contrary to the situation in the bottom five, which have seen no deaths.

Despite this, some have raised questions over the validity of data in Laos, Myanmar and Indonesia, where cases tend to be underreported due to lack of medical capacity and other socio-political factors.

We also see that worst-affected countries are implementing more severe and comprehensive policies including movement restriction, declarations of emergency and economic stimulus. Their effectiveness are yet to be seen however, especially if this pandemic is prolonged. On top of that, countries that have not imposed movement restriction measures must also brace the potential of a second wave of infection.

As the threat is still developing and policies among countries differ, it seems that the only clear thing right now is that many things remain unclear. Thus, how ASEAN as a whole fares through this pandemic is a question worth pondering on, as the region is only as strong as its weakest link in this unprecedented struggle.

Moreover, the prospect of closer cooperation is unclear as AMS are prioritising domestic imperatives over joint, regional responses as they deal with the pandemic. This risks countries missing out on greater sharing of information, coordination of policies, best practices and strategic options undertaken by their own neighbours even as they search for options from outside the region.

So where has ASEAN been in all this? On the positive side, there have been meetings among ASEAN economic, foreign and defence ministers and senior officials to ensure the stability of supply chains, enhance a regional response and defence cooperation during this crisis. The latest meeting of senior health officials, for example was conducted on 13 March 2020 to discuss containment strategies, healthcare facilities, travel restrictions and social distancing measures, among others.

Despite this, information on the follow-ups to these meetings, or whether they bore tangible results, is scant. It seems ASEAN’s conundrum of perceived irrelevance for the people continues to haunt it even in this pandemic.

Questions abound, for example, as to why test kits are still lacking to some despite Vietnam’s capability of producing. Additionally, Vietnam and Singapore’s experience to suppress the number of infections is a lesson that other AMS should be familiar with by now.

As all AMS grapple with individual problems, ASEAN’s future meetings on COVID-19 should emphasise on learning each other’s best practices. This is not only to improve the response capabilities of each country, but also to avoid mistakes of one country being repeated by another.

While ASEAN has attempted to provide the latest updates of each AMS, it needs to improve its communication capacity and more importantly, presence. A dedicated COVID-19 page, which contains some very useful data, is not prominently highlighted on ASEAN’s main page and its social media, thus raising our curiosity on ASEAN’s commitment.

Making its website more user-friendly allows greater access to the wealth of information it hosts, in addition to disseminating more vital information on its social media platforms beyond the usual celebration of ASEAN diversity.

It seems that the pandemic has exposed some of ASEAN’s long-standing weaknesses. Nevertheless, ASEAN also has an opportunity to act here, if it recognises this weakness and makes the necessary improvements.

Lessons from this pandemic must be translated into effective measures to better handle future crises. Among measures that merit consideration are stockpiling medicine and medical equipment. Creation of a rapid response team or expansion of ASEAN’s AHA Centre is another possibility. Another possible measure is the creation of specific funds to deal with health crises that would assist countries with crisis containment efforts or economic assistance/recovery programmes.

Cooperation that took place during this pandemic should be further strengthened and even institutionalised, such as the evacuation of citizens from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia from Iran by Malaysian government. Other examples include the assistance extended by the Singaporean government towards Malaysian workers in providing temporary housing, the close level of coordination among the Malaysian and Singaporean Ministries of Health and the creation of a comprehensive joint working group between the two neighbours to manage the pandemic and its fallout.

It is never too early to look ahead. As history has shown, invention and innovation flourished in hard times. During this pandemic, social distancing necessitates better use of technology such as e-learning, online shopping, food delivery, telemedicine, “ninja robots”, drones and 3D printing, among others. These are the industries that AMS could collectively nurture under ASEAN’s economic pillar through cooperation between public and private sectors as well as to create an environment that is conducive for their growth. These industries will not only be the future engine of growth but will enhance the capabilities of AMS to be better prepared in the event of future calamities.

With lockdowns and travel bans in place in several in AMS, the COVID-19 crisis has probably become the gravest threat to ASEAN’s spirit of connectivity. The success or failures of the organisation to contribute in crisis management and relief will speak volumes towards the organisation’s relevance, which many of its supporters and detractors are keen to comment about once the virus vanishes.

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