Hanoi, Viet Nam, Apr 14 – Southeast Asian leaders warned Tuesday of the crippling economic cost of the coronavirus at a summit held online, calling for trade routes to reopen to protect jobs and food supplies, as well as the stockpiling of medical equipment.
Vietnam — which chaired the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting — urged leaders to set up an emergency fund to tackle the pandemic, as the virus ravages the region’s tourism and export-reliant economies.
In opening remarks via video conference, Vietnam premier Nguyen Xuan Phuc hailed the work of ASEAN in fighting the virus so far.
But he warned the virus “has badly impacted people’s lives, their socio-economic situation… challenging stability and social security”.
Vietnam has so far had some success in containing the virus through extensive quarantines and social distancing.
It has recorded 265 infections and no deaths, while Thailand has officially also kept its numbers relatively low with just over 2,500 cases and 40 deaths.
The situation is mixed elsewhere across the region, with fears that limited testing in Indonesia has played out into the low caseload — and under 400 deaths — for the country of 260 million.
Similarly, threadbare health systems from Myanmar to Laos are widely believed to be missing the true scale of infections, while a recent surge in cases in Singapore has raised fears the pandemic could rebound in places which had batted back the initial outbreak.
Vietnam used the 10-member summit to propose funding to deal with the pandemic, building emergency medical stockpiles and sharing resources.
Both Malaysia and the Philippines said they would welcome a response fund, with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte warning he was “particularly concerned with food security”.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong echoed the group’s fears, urging the region’s leaders to collaborate “to keep trading routes and supply lines open”.
The whole region has been hit hard by the virus.
In Vietnam many factories are still running, but, in a sign of the ongoing risks, dozens of workers at a Samsung unit in the north were ordered into quarantine after one tested positive for the virus.
The Thai economy, the second-largest in ASEAN, is expected to shrink by 5.3 percent this year — a 22-year low — with millions left jobless in the politically febrile kingdom.
Nearly 22 million people have registered for cash handouts.
Leaders from China, Japan and South Korea also joined the summit.