MANILA – Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) must work together to counter the adverse social and economic impact of coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic on the regional bloc, President Rodrigo Duterte said on Tuesday.

“To effectively overcome the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, Asean must collaborate and coordinate within our region and beyond,” Duterte said during his address at the Special Asean Summit on Covid-19.

During the “Laging Handa” press briefing aired on state-run PTV-4, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque confirmed that Duterte joined his fellow Southeast Asian leaders in a “virtual” meeting to discuss ways to defeat Covid-19.

Duterte said that while the immediate responses made by Asean member-states to fight Covid-19 were necessary, these could drive the societies and the large international community “further apart.”

He warned that retreating from the regional and global connections would be counterproductive.

“An effective, strategic response requires that we come together and cooperate even more,” Duterte said.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte gives his address as he joins other leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries during the special Asean Summit on Covid-19 video conference at the Malago Clubhouse in Malacañang on April 14, 2020. (Presidential photo)

Among the Asean member-states, the Philippines now has the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases, which is at 4,932.

It is followed by Malaysia (4,817), Indonesia (4,557), Singapore (2,918), Thailand (2,579), Vietnam (265), Brunei Darussalam (136), Cambodia (122), Myanmar (39), and Laos (19).

Four areas of cooperation

Duterte acknowledged that Asean is in the “middle of an unfolding catastrophe,” which is “unprecedented in scale and devastating in impact for all.”

“In the most visceral way, Covid-19 is upending the totality of our way of life. And this virus threatens to exact the highest tolls — on our peoples and our economies,” he said.

To be successful in the battle against the “new and different kind of enemy,” Duterte mentioned four areas of cooperation for the regional bloc.

Duterte stressed the need to boost production and facilitate intra-Asean trade of vital medicines and medical equipment and supplies.

He made the proposal as he emphasized that the Southeast Asian nations’ healthcare systems are under “increasing stress” due to the rise in Covid-19 infections.

Duterte said Asean should also remain open for trade to ensure the supply chain connectivity and the smooth flow of goods within the region.

He said food security is key in maintaining “socio-economic and political stability,” especially at a time that people from the Southeast Asian countries are suffering due to Covid-19.

“We are particularly concerned with food security in this period of lockdowns. Our most urgent priority is ensuring sufficient supply of rice for our people,” Duterte said.

The third point Duterte raised was the Asean’s support for vaccine and research and development initiatives.

Duterte said Asean should fast-track cooperation with its Dialogue Partners in developing vaccine for Covid-19.

He added that the Philippines is ready to join clinical trials for Covid-19 treatment in an effort to stop the further transmission of the new coronavirus.

“Without a vaccine or a cure, we can only delay the spread of the disease. But containment, in whatever form and degree, will have staggering socio-economic implications for all of us,” Duterte said.

Duterte also called on his fellow Asean leaders to establish an early warning system for pandemics in the region.

He said such move is “something vital and concrete that we can do in a collective manner.”

“Covid-19 will not be the last pandemic the world will face. We have to be ready for future outbreaks. We therefore have to improve and expand existing Asean’s mechanisms to cover public health emergencies,” Duterte said.

Duterte also welcomed Thailand’s proposal to establish a Covid-19 Asean Response Fund and Vietnam’s crafting of Asean’s response from the early stages of the outbreak.

He likewise took note of Brunei Darussalam and Singapore’s timely assistance to the Philippines.

“Our present challenge transcends borders and exempts no one. Regardless of how we handle the crisis within our own respective territories, we can only be truly safe if we defeat this virus everywhere. Let us therefore strengthen our networks of solidarity and cooperation. Let us surmount this crisis together,” Duterte said. (PNA)

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