CEAC Commentary

June 30, 2020 

The Regional Cooperation in Asia

Against the Novel Infectious Disease

By ONIMARU Takeshi

1. Current Status of the COVID-19

In this report, I would like to take up an issue of how we can develop a regional cooperation scheme in Asia against the currently emerging COVID-19, and also what kind of supports Japan should provide to the most affected countries in the region, especially in the phase of “Post-COVID-19.”

As of April 30, the COVID-19 had already caused a pandemic with 3 million people infected and 200,000 deaths worldwide. Given the invisibility of the virus and the current unavailability of the vaccine and medicine, the Japanese government requested its citizens to refrain from going outside. Some other countries installed even tougher measures such as locking down the city. Henceforth, we should also pay attention to the impacts on the developing countries. The infection, based on the data as of April 30, has spread in Europe, United States, Russia and China, while not as much in Southeast Asia. As myself having been a member of the research project on “Global Health Governance and Japan’s Diplomacy” conducted by the Japan Forum on International Relations in 2016, I took note of a presentation by Professor OSHITANI Hitoshi, currently a member of the Expert Meeting on the Novel Coronavirus Disease Control under the Ministry of Health of Japan, to the effect that it is the developing countries that will be affected the most by the spread of emerging infectious disease due to the lack of domestic surveillance measures and sufficient medical equipment. For example, there were some cases which patients infected COVID-19 were misjudged as patients infected dengue fever in Indonesia. In developing countries, the lack of medical infrastructure and knowledge frequently prevent doctors from promptly and correctly diagnosing symptoms, and providing appropriate treatments. As such, huge outbreak could happen in developing countries and it has severe impacts on life, societies, and economies there.

2. What Can Be Done for Mitigating the Impact of COVID-19 through the Regional Cooperation in Asia

In the current situation, the Japanese government should focus on controlling the COVID-19 and mitigate the impacts within Japan. But once the situation in Japan is somehow settled down, it is quite important how Japan can provide both medical and economic supports for the countries which were severely affected by the COVID-19. Most of these supports would be short term medical and economic aids to improve or solve the current situations, but if we really want to strengthen the regional capabilities against infectious diseases in Asia, we should consider a long term commitment to improve the capabilities to control the infectious diseases and to mitigate the impacts in each country in the region.

The current COVID-19 is not the last emerging infectious diseases, and another emerging infectious disease will continue to appear. And also we need to prepare re-emerging diseases like cholera and plague. To prevent the outbreak of these diseases and to mitigate their impacts, it is necessary to improve medical and public health sectors and to make effective medical and public health measures taken in the region.

Along with medical measures, other measures like social interventions and risk communications are also crucial for the battle against the infectious diseases. For example, after the outbreak of COVID-19 in Japan, medical and public health experts have tried to express their analyses on the situation and to explain the measures they want to take. But frequently their explanations are too technical to understand, and we need the experts who can communicate highly technical things in much more plain and understandable ways.

When we implement the measures against the infectious diseases, sometimes we will face “conflict of interests” among public health, economy, politics, religion, and society. For example, if we want to control the infectious disease like the current COVID-19, controlling and preventing measures such as restricting human mobility, locking down cities and countries, and strict quarantine are desirable from the public health point of view, but all of these measures will have severe and negative impacts on both economic and social activities. This type of “conflict of interests” can also be seen in case of natural disasters. To avoid or somehow improve this conflict of interests, we need the persons who can bridge the differences and gaps both in interests and specialties. And here, the question is how to train these persons. Under the current university education in Japan, it is hard to train these persons because most curriculums in Japanese universities aim for training the specialists in certain academic field. Undoubtedly these specialists are still crucial but we need to establish a new type of university education which is not discipline based but issue and problem based, and should provide those who can manage the crisis like the current pandemic of COVID-19 through this new model of university education.

The training of these experts on crisis and risk managements should be done both in Japan and in the region. East and Southeast Asia are frequently hit by emerging infectious diseases and natural disasters like typhoons, earthquakes, floods, torrential rain, and volcanic eruption. And to control and mitigate the impacts of emerging infectious diseases and natural disasters, we need these experts who could manage these crises by cooperating with the specialists, who could communicate the risks for the public, and make a decision on what is proper and effective measure under the rapidly changing situations. Another important ability required for these experts is to set up measures based on local conditions and knowledge. Countries in East and Southeast Asia are politically, economically, socially, and culturally diverse, and when we try to implement effective measures against infectious diseases and natural disasters, it is crucial to consider these local factors and to make a decision based on them. It takes time to train the experts who are deeply acquainted with local conditions and who could apply the measures suitable for the local situations, and we should start to train these experts in the region and also this should be the main pillar of regional cooperation in Asia.

(This is an English translation of an outline of the lecture delivered by ONIMARU Takeshi, Individual Member, CEAC / Professor/Vice Dean, School of Interdisciplinary Science and Innovation, Kyushu University, at the 83rd Policy Plenary Meeting of CEAC on April 30, 2020.)