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ASEAN’s Covid-19 Response: Why Minorities and the Most Vulnerable Matter
By Dominique Virgil, Roberto Lie

Just when we thought the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nailed it in flattening the pandemic curve, fear that it will turn into the next epicenter of Covid-19 has emerged, based on estimates by research from Johns Hopkins University.1 Aside from Vietnam, which appears to be slowly winning the war against the pandemic, other ASEAN member states are still struggling, including Singapore and Malaysia, despite their early success in containing the outbreak. Since early April, more than 13,000 migrant workers in Singapore’s dormitories have tested positive for Covid-19, boosting the total cases to 37,527 as of June 6.2 In the blink of an eye, Singapore went from one of the most successful countries in fighting the pandemic to having the highest number of cases in Southeast Asia, surpassing Indonesia and the Philippines.

 

It is safe to imagine the varying impact on other ASEAN countries if a similar, sudden spike in cases were to occur, due to the varying testing and healthcare capacity of each state. Witnessing the deadly impact of this virus and the horror it has caused to the healthcare systems in the European Union (EU), especially in Italy, Spain and France, it is safe to say that a harmonious, integrated regional response is vital to determine the final result of this battle. Considering the current regional response taken by ASEAN, is it enough to win the war against Covid-19?

 

 

Current Problems and Impacts

 

Covid-19 impacted all sectors in ASEAN, from health to the economy. As mentioned above, the positive cases and deaths are increasing differently, but it disproportionately affects minority groups and the most vulnerable communities across all member states. On the other hand, the economic impact of Covid-19 will be exacerbated by the huge increase in poverty following the pandemic. It is predicted that 60 million people in East Asia and the Pacific may be pushed into poverty as a result of a 20 percent loss in income.3 In a separate estimate, the Asian Development Bank said that 68 million jobs could be lost due to the pandemic. However, the ADB said ASEAN could begin to overcome the economic impact once the pandemic is contained, but should ensure that all parts of society, including marginalized and vulnerable communities, are included in containment measures.4

 

This disproportionate impact of Covid-19 is exacerbated by systemic disparities in healthcare capacity and differing access to available health services within each country. One measure is testing capacity. Figures from late April showed show Singapore topping testing capacity in Southeast Asia, with 16,203 tests per million people, while Myanmar and Indonesia remained at the bottom with the lowest testing capacity — 85 tests and 154 tests, respectively, per million people.5 Speculation about higher numbers of Covid-19 deaths compared to official figures has arisen in Indonesia, because the number of people buried using Covid-19 protocols exceeds the national figure of Covid-19 deaths announced by the government.6

 

Discrepancies among member states in handling the crisis show the urgency of a regional response. Despite being among the first countries where positive cases of Covid-19 were found, Vietnam has the lowest rate of positive cases and deaths among infected countries and is slowly getting back to normal. Businesses are reopening, people are leaving their homes and restarting their activities. ASEAN member states also have huge gaps in their national healthcare capacities, with a number of health systems unable to keep up with the increasing rate of cases in several countries.

 

 

Is ASEAN’s Current Response Sufficient?

 

ASEAN leaders recently adopted a Declaration of the Special ASEAN Summit on Covid-19 on April 14, 2020, after rigorous discussion during an online special summit. In the declaration, ASEAN committed to strengthening co-operation in public health measures, as well as provision of medicines, medical supplies and equipment. The declaration included a call for maintaining open trade, the establishment of a Covid-19 ASEAN Response Fund, strategies to ensure the smooth flow of medical supplies, food, and essential goods; also included was an economic recovery plan for social safety nets, food security, and education. The next question: is this enough?

 

Due to its ASEAN Way system of co-operation, the grouping has avoided strongly conferring duties to uphold human rights on its members. This has resulted in putting human rights after sovereignty, non-interference and consensus,7 and only expressing vague commitments in non-binding declarations. Scholars and civil society have criticized the watered-down language in ASEAN human rights declarations.8 9 10 This translates into strong protection toward laws that focus on national interests, but weak obligations to bestow protections within those laws, especially on human rights for minorities. A case in point: within the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, Paragraph 3 states that migrant workers’ rights are to be respected without undermining state laws. This is, of course, written to bolster the sovereign power that member states have over their national laws under the non-interference policy. This position has been restated in the ASEAN Consensus on the Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.11

 

The consensus thankfully states the commitment to confer protection of state laws regarding benefits toward migrant workers, although those protections are not uniform between states and only two countries have ratified the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, leaving individual member states to interpret what constitutes fair treatment.12 Domestic migrant workers are also not mentioned, leaving the application of labor laws for them up to interpretation, an issue that has plagued their work consistently.13 With regard to sexual minorities, ASEAN has continuously excluded LGBTQ+ populations from its documents. Member states refused to include words such as “gender identity,” “gender expression” or “sexual orientation” within the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in 2012.14 The member states have also refused to harmonize national laws and policies with the Yogyakarta Principles on human rights and sexual orientation that emerged from a meeting of human rights groups in the Indonesian city in 2006.15 These are but a few examples of the systemic legal issues that result from the ASEAN Way.

 

These issues have all come home to roost with this pandemic. Longstanding issues within ASEAN regarding the provision of life-saving HIV antiretroviral medications, for example, is now even more severe during the pandemic.16 This is especially dire for trans individuals, who often lack access to basic healthcare.17 Migrant workers are also impacted, as illustrated by the situation in Singapore. In certain member states, instead of securing the basic rights of these minorities, governments have increased surveillance and detention of migrants, especially refugees. In Malaysia, increasing xenophobia and prejudice led authorities to arrest 586 undocumented migrants in a raid in its capital.18 Using armed police force, they then proceeded to detain children and ethnic Rohingya refugees. Politicians have also doxxed names and photos of activists. These are all done under the banner of preventing undocumented migrants from travelling to other areas, without realizing that putting them in a single detention building would jeopardize them further by increasing the risk of infection. This happened not even one month after the abandonment of hundreds of Rohingya at sea for two months, causing 30 of them to die.19 Exclusion of minorities and vulnerable people should not be a solution for the pandemic. Inclusion and protection of minorities should be a priority to protect the region from further impact from the pandemic. Without that, there will be grave consequences for vulnerable minorities who are not able to sustain themselves or practice distancing due to their economic situation, effectively prolonging the duration of the pandemic for the general population.

 

 

The Need to Consider Human Rights

 

The vision of achieving an ASEAN Community focuses on “improving the life of its people,” reflected through various sectors — economic and cultural development, social progress, regional peace and security, and improvement of living standards, among others. ASEAN also aims to “ensure the safety of its citizens from threats,” one of which is pandemics; and to “offer new opportunities to the region and the world of peace and stability.”20

 

Prioritizing human rights has proven to be paramount to the economic and business environment, as mentioned by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.21 In addition, global markets are increasingly aware of the importance of human rights in economic activities, and some countries have imposed trade sanctions on those committing widespread human rights violations. Respect, promotion and protection of human rights, if ensured and guaranteed by all ASEAN member states, will leverage its position in conducting global business, which is also one of the goals of the ASEAN Economic Community.22 On the other hand, human-rights commitments are also enshrined in the ASEAN Framework for Equitable Economic Development, which states that one of the targets is to reduce poverty and protect the most vulnerable, while at the same time improving the quality, coverage and sustainability of social protection. 23

 

With a large number of people in ASEAN being pushed into poverty, the underlying inequality that exacerbates the impact of the pandemic remains tough homework for governments within ASEAN. There’s a reason why social protection goes hand in hand with poverty reduction for ASEAN: it protects people from being trapped in poverty, empowers them to seize opportunities and helps workers to deal with unemployment.24 A report by the UN Research Institute for Social Development states that social protection or assistance has a positive impact on poverty reduction in developing countries. One of the examples given is Latin America, where old-age poverty has been reduced by between 25 percent and 93 percent.25 The report adds that “Social protection can cushion the adverse social effects of rapid structural change, including those associated with migration, unemployment, rising inequalities and pandemics.”26 However, other policies are still needed to entirely reduce poverty, such as expanding social and economic opportunities for the most disadvantaged and ensuring decent employment and income generation for people.27 To put it bluntly, social protection and services have been proven to “enable families to care for and sustain their members and reduce both the costs and time involved in work and other daily activities. They increase the chances that individuals and their families can lift themselves out of poverty and live dignified and productive lives.”28 This exposes the importance of taking marginalized and vulnerable communities into account in rebuilding ASEAN’s economy. One way to do this is through ensuring the improvement and fulfillment of social protection and security as a basic human right through poverty reduction programs post Covid-19.

 

Migrant workers are another marginalized community that can make a potentially significant contribution to rebuilding the economy post Covid-19. According to the blueprint for the ASEAN Economic Community, the aim to increase the mobility of labor and talent will eventually contribute to a spike in migrant workers in member states, and their contribution to the high economic growth desired by ASEAN members should not be undermined. According to Seree Nonthasoot, former representative of Thailand to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), “Migrant workers profit from their employment abroad while contributing to both the sending and receiving states through the remittances they send home and through the work that they have delivered in the receiving states where local workers have moved up to take positions that require higher skill.”29 The significant number of migrant workers in member states and their contribution to the regional economy should be maintained by ensuring the fulfillment of their rights.

 

Covid-19 shed light on how ASEAN members treat migrant workers despite their significant economic contribution. Inadequate housing and other deficiencies have exacerbated Covid-19 infections among migrant workers. Singapore’s negligence of migrant workers, followed by a massive spike in cases, shows what happens when ASEAN member states fail to take into account minorities and their systemic vulnerabilities when forming policies on disease outbreaks such as Covid-19. The pandemic took root in migrant worker dormitories, giving the virus the possibility to re-populate and effectively undoing the good work that Singapore had done to curb the spread of the virus within the general population in the first place.

 

It is clear that incorporating human rights considerations in the policymaking process, especially in measures to mitigate the economic impact after the pandemic, is important to ensure that everyone benefits equally from economic growth and integration, and to achieve the aim of an ASEAN Community that focuses on enhancing the well-being of the people within ASEAN, including those who are marginalized and vulnerable. However, it is paramount to prioritize the health conditions of the people and to ensure the right to social security of those who are hit the hardest during the pandemic, including through equal assistance.

 

 

Conclusion and Recommendations

 

To improve ASEAN’s response to the pandemic, there are four recommendations listed below.

 

First is regional reprioritization. ASEAN member states need to prioritize the right to health and social protection, or security, for everyone, including the most marginalized and vulnerable. Reforming the system of social protection and incorporating it into the economic recovery plan post Covid-19 is essential to reduce the increasing poverty rate as a result of the pandemic. Learning from best practices in other countries is also important, especially in forming policies that include wider social and economic opportunities. ASEAN can facilitate the sharing of best practices from other developing countries while taking into account its human rights commitments, such as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) Blueprint and the ASEAN Consensus on the Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, among others. Without neglecting international obligations arising from being parties to international legal frameworks, ASEAN member states should also fulfil their international human rights obligations.

 

Second is establishing more targeted consultation and co-operation on public health policy, such as the regulations for quarantine, lockdowns or social movement restrictions and other related elements. This should be facilitated among ASEAN member states to further contain the pandemic and stop the spread to other regions within ASEAN. Consultations on public health policy to narrow the gap in health services among member states, and to better enhance the preparedness for future pandemics, should also be co-ordinated.

 

Third is reutilization of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights along with other relevant experts to monitor and advise member states on whether their medical, food and other needs have been distributed equally to ensure that no one is left behind. AICHR can also monitor gradual improvements made by member states to the right to health, such as minimizing the gap between healthcare capacity and preparedness for pandemics, while also improving access to healthcare services for all. As mentioned above, harmonization of AICHR work and existing health mechanisms in ASEAN can narrow the gaps in the fulfillment of the right to health among member states.

 

 

Fourth, citing a recommendation by OXFAM, the ASEAN Business Advisory Council can partner in the regional response to “engage the private sectors in delivering essential services and supplies and to support displaced workers in their value chains.”30 At the same time, the ASEAN Business Advisory Council and the AICHR can co-operate to provide guidelines to ensure the fulfillment of the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights and other international human rights standards. Finally, the AICHR can work closely or under the auspices of the ASEAN Co-ordinating Council to ensure that the efforts are well-co-ordinated and integrated among all ASEAN member states.

 

The post-pandemic era will determine whether ASEAN will move one step ahead or be left behind, and this is the right time to start realizing the dream of the ASEAN Community through incorporation of human rights within its policymaking process.

 


Notes

1 “Southeast Asia Could Be The Next Coronavirus Hot Spot — These Charts Show Why,” CNBC Indonesia, www.cnbc.com/ 2020/04/20/southeast-asia-could-be-the-next-coronavirus-hot-spot-these-charts-show-why.html


2 www.moh.gov.sg/covid-19


3 “To tackle Covid-19, a united ASEAN must deliver urgently,” The Jakarta Post, www.thejakartapost.com/academia/2020/04/09/to-tackle-covid-19-a-united-asean-must-deliver-urgently.html


4 “ADB: Asia stands to lose 68 million jobs if coronavirus is not contained in six months,” Eco Business, www.eco-business.com/news/adb-asia-stands-to-lose-68-million-jobs-if-coronavirus-is-not-contained-in-six-months/


5 “Southeast Asia Could Be The Next Coronavirus Hot Spot — These Charts Show Why,” CNBC Indonesia, www.cnbc.com/ 2020/04/20/southeast-asia-could-be-the-next-coronavirus-hot-spot-these-charts-show-why.html


6 “Coronavirus Cases in Indonesia Hit New High, Funeral Figure Suggests More Deaths,” Jakarta Globe, jakartaglobe.id/news/coronavirus-cases-in-indonesia-hit-new-high-funeral-figure-suggests-more-deaths


7 Article 2 par (2) of The ASEAN Charter


8 Daniel Aguirre, “Human Rights the ASEAN Way,” JURIST — Forum, Jan. 10, 2012, jurist.org/forum/2013/01/human-rights-the-asean-way.php


9 Michael Haggerson, “Human rights organizations criticize ASEAN proposed rights protections,” JURIST — Forum. Nov. 5, 2012, www.jurist.org/news/2012/11/human-rights-organizations-criticize-asean-proposed-rights-protections/


10 David Stout, Phil Robertson: “ASEAN remains a toothless tiger when it comes to human rights,” DVB, May 22, 2012, english.dvb.no/interview/phil-robertson-%E2%80%98asean-remains-a-toothless-tiger-when-it-comes-to-human-rights%E2%80%99/22110


11 Chapter 3-7 of the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.


12 Dio Herdiawan Tobing, The Problem with ASEAN’s New Migrant Workers Pact, Jakarta Post, Nov. 16, 2017, www.thejakartapost.com/ academia/2017/11/16/the-problem-with-aseans-new-migrant-workers-pact.html


13 International Labor Organization, Towards Achieving Decent Work for Domestic Workers in ASEAN, ILO, 25-26 October 2017, Manila, Philippines, www.oit.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/ — -asia/ — -ro-bangkok/documents/publication/wcms_631089.pdf


14 Health Policy Project, Asia Pacific Transgender Network, UN Development Program, Blueprint for the Provision of Comprehensive Care for Trans People and Trans Communities, Washington DC: 2015, Futures Group, Health Policy Project, p. 9 www.asia-pacific.undp.org/content/rbap/en/home/library/democratic_governance/hiv_aids/blueprint-for-the-provision-of-comprehensive-care-for-trans-peop.html


15 Ibid, p. 9


16 Dyaning Pangestika, “Activists Urge Government to Resolve HIV Drug Shortages amid Covid-19 Pandemic,” Jakarta Post, March 20 2020, www.thejakartapost.com/news/2020/03/20/activists-urge-govt-to-resolve-hiv-drugs-shortage-amid-covid-19-pandemic.html


17 Health Policy Project, Asia Pacific Transgender Network, United Nations Development Program, Op. Cit., pg. 2


18 Kaamil Ahmed & agencies, Malaysia Cites Covid-19 for Rounding up Hundreds of Migrants, Malaysia, May 2, 2020, www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/may/02/malaysia-cites-covid-19-for-rounding-up-hundreds-of-migrants


19 Hananh Ellis-Petersen and Shaikh Azizur Rahman, Bangladesh Rescues Hundreds of Rohingya Drifting at Sea for Nearly two Months, Guardian, April 16, 2020, www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/16/bangladesh-rescues-hundreds-of-rohingya-drifting-at-sea-for-nearly-two-months


20 “Fact Sheet on ASEAN Community,” ASEAN Secretariat. asean.org/storage/2012/05/7.-Fact-Sheet-on-ASEAN-Community.pdf


21 The report states: “Avoiding human rights violations will help maintain positive community relations and contribute to a more stable and productive business environment.” Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, “Business and Human Rights: A Progress Report,” OHCHR, www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/ BusinessHRen.pdf


22 Ibid.


23 “ASEAN Framework for Equitable Economic Development,” ASEAN, June 12, 2012, asean.org/?static_post=the-asean-framework-for-equitable-economic-development

24 UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “Social Protection,” www.un.org/development/desa/socialperspective ondevelopment/issues/social-protection.html


25 UN Research Institute for Social Development, “Combating Poverty and Inequality: Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics,” www.unicef.org/spanish/socialpolicy/files/Combating_Poverty_and_Inequality.pdf, p. 143. Accessed on May 7, 2020.


26 Ibid., p. 156


27 Ibid., p. 157


28 Ibid., p. 161


29 Seree Nonthasoot, “Humane Aspects of the People-Centred, People-Oriented ASEAN Economic Community,” in Global Megatrends: Implications for the ASEAN Economic Community, asean.org/storage/2017/09/Ch.3_Humane-Aspects-of-the-People-Centred-People-Oriented-AEC.pdf


30 “To tackle Covid-19, a united ASEAN must deliver urgently,” Jakarta Post, April 9, 2020. www.thejakartapost.com/academia/2020/04/09/to-tackle-covid-19-a-united-asean-must-deliver-urgently.html


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    The coronavirus outbreak has posed an enormous challenge to the credibility and coherence of ASEAN, and exposed cracks in the association’s commitment to marginalized communities across the region. It would be an important sign of progress if ASEAN member states were to emerge from the pandemic with a renewed commitment to fundamental human rights, Dominique Virgil and Roberto Lie argue.
    Published: Jun 26, 2020
    About the author

    Dominique Virgil is the executive director of the Sandya Institute in Jakarta.

    Roberto Lie is the vice executive director of the Sandya Institute.

    Download print PDF

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