WHILE pandemic-induced times call for pandemic-tailored measures, the immediate effects of the Covid-19 virus have shown how countries dependent on the globalised world have suffered from these disruptions.

It has also extended to affecting commitments in international and regional organisations working to ensure stability or some degree of normalcy to ensure that these vital networks are able to function. With this in mind, health diplomacy has emerged as one of the means to re-engage with the rest of the world.

The primary intention and scope have generally been one of global interest, namely the prevention or reduction of the spread of diseases, or the improvement of public health.

In this case, it has shown its complementary strength in multitasking by being able to tackle the immediate effects and improve foreign relations.

For Malaysia, approaching our diplomatic relations with public health in mind is nothing new. This country had been a contributor to the development of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2001 before its launch in 2003.

Our more recent example has been evident in the repatriation efforts for citizens stranded abroad, where our generally positive foreign relations has allowed for smoother information gathering for envoys and permission seeking for unscheduled or chartered flights.

As of June this year, approximately 20,965 citizens have returned home.

There were also examples where Malaysia assisted in mutual repatriation efforts for citizens from Russia, Italy and Uzbekistan. Other countries within the region have also shown their own efforts of health diplomacy.

China has attempted to reach out to the world, appealing with the importance for states to become united to combat against the disease through their own experiences, provision of logistical supplies and, most visibly, through their face mask diplomacy.

Japan was one of the first to offer logistical supplies to China to combat Covid-19, and this has improved relations between the two states even to a societal level.

Similarly, South Korea also has similar engagements with Indonesia in providing the country with emergency aid and testing kits. While these have shown mostly altruistic purposes, states need to be aware of the opportunism that can arise from such engagements. The pandemic placed the world in a state of great uncertainty, the approach health diplomacy bases itself from allows chances to build new narratives to determine ally from adversary, sources of conflict, blame attribution and the like.

Ultimately, it shows how the objective of health diplomacy is to appeal to foreign audiences, much like how other types of diplomacy attempts to achieve.

At a time when unilateral decision-making both at home and abroad seemed to be the preferred response, it would seem counter intuitive to do the opposite. The importance of engagements in this interconnected world should not be neglected as it can hold wider implications on how states perceive each other, their own perceptions of security and the best ways to conduct themselves to achieve their interests.

Ideally, states should strive towards greater collaboration that goes beyond formal memberships to become better contributing members of the international community. For such collaboration to be effective, it will require revisions at a domestic level to ensure better integration.

These include opportunities to make small investments towards new approaches that aim to prevent, mitigate and manage the acute shocks brought on by the pandemic.

In this case, this will entail building and periodically stress-testing the sufficient capacities such as medical know-how and infrastructure to prepare for future health crises.

This also highlights the importance of the benefits brought by technocratic experience and leadership towards improving economies and societies. This presents something other than nationalism and arbitrary identities to maintain a facade of performative legitimacy.

It can discourage unilateral decision-making in international affairs and calm rising nationalistic tendencies that can expose the state to domestic instability.

Connectivity is key as the foundations in what Malaysia operated on and thrived from comes from its ability to establish and maintain connections.

Therefore, pragmatic policies geared towards ensuring adaptability with existing skills and advantages should be the priority in these difficult times.

While “social distancing” has become one of the current buzzwords as of late, solutions for the future may ask us to do just the opposite.

This article was first appeared in New Straits Times on 8 August 2020.

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