Although pandemics represent a significant threat to the physical, social and economic wellbeing of societies all over the world, “pandemic fatigue” has set in globally. In Southeast Asia, however—where health officials are still haunted by the memory of the 2003 SARS pandemic and currently by the prevailing H5NI (bird flu) threat— pandemic preparedness remains a high-priority. There, International Medical Corps’ PREPARE Project has been instrumental in supporting the development of a regional multisectoral pandemic disaster preparedness plan for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN—a governmental body comprised of Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam—has identified the need for a coordinated multi-national preparedness and response system designed to mitigate the impacts of a severe pandemic or other mega-disaster.
International Medical Corps recently co-organized a high-level consultation for ASEAN through funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the PREPARE Project, and in collaboration with the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the Philippine Government. The three day consultation held in Manila, January 9-11, 2013, provided an opportunity for an evidence-based exchange of views among diverse sectors and international stakeholders from the perspective that severe pandemics represent fundamental threats to national, regional and global security.
“This platform has provided the opportunity for honest and cutting-edge discussions about the potential for compounding ramifications during a severe pandemic,” stated Jacob Schafer, Program Manager for the PREPARE Project. “We have broadened our preparedness efforts far beyond the traditional confines of the health sector to include protection mechanisms for all critical sectors of society such as economic, food security, transportation, and telecommunications among others.”
Attendees included delegates from the ASEAN member states and the ASEAN Secretariat, as well as representatives from the public and private sectors, international non-governmental organizations, the government of the Philippines, military and academia, there to discuss a proposal to advance multi-sectoral pandemic planning and preparation throughout ASEAN’s 10 member states, its partners and the region. Leading experts on pandemic influenza spoke on the need to strengthen both health and non-health sector resilience, as convincing non-health sectors of the need to prepare against pandemics remains an ongoing challenge. Participants were then divided into four groups to examine specific aspects of multi-sectoral preparedness, including ensuring adequate public health response and capacities, critical infrastructure protection, high-level ASEAN governance, and community level resilience, among other topics.
International Medical Corps’ PREPARE Project is supporting ASEAN in its process to develop a regional pandemic preparedness plan through a series of high-level consultations and technical meetings, including in Singapore (February 2012), Brunei (March 2012) and the Philippines (March 2012, January 2013).The region is at high risk of widespread epidemics due to several factors, including increasing levels of migration and international travel, high population density, changing patterns of land use, and the intensification of farming practices.
In the coming months, the conclusions from the high-level consultation meetings will be reviewed internally within the ASEAN Secretariat and by the ASEAN Working Group on Pandemic Preparedness and Response, which includes representatives from all 10 ASEAN member states. Discussions are also planned with representatives from the ASEAN Economic and Political-Security Pillars to determine how best to integrate multi-sectoral preparedness into the organization’s broader program of work. In the interim, a mechanism is expected to be put in place to implement immediate and essential activities under the ASEAN Regional Pandemic Disaster Preparedness Framework and work plan, as well as the strategy and means to transition to a more permanent mechanism.
Noel Miranda, Technical Advisor for the PREPARE Project, states: “It is critical for ASEAN to protect its cumulative investments towards regional economic integration, where all its three pillars are working very hard to establish the ASEAN community. By 2015 and beyond, ASEAN should be a vibrant region with free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labor, and freer flow of capital.”