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ASEAN Bloc Fights Impulse to Hoard Medical Goods

People wear masks in Ho Chi Minh City as required by the Vietnamese government.
People wear masks in Ho Chi Minh City as required by the Vietnamese government.

More than half the nations of Southeast Asia started this week by taking a donation of protective personal equipment (PPE), such as medical suits and masks, from their neighbor Vietnam to help them in the fight against COVID-19. It is the latest sign the region is resisting the impulse to choke off any shipment of medical supplies out of their borders, an impulse seen globally as supply shortages put health workers’ lives at risk.

With the handover Monday in Hanoi, which also included virus test kits, Vietnam has now donated to all its peers in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which it also is the rotating chair for 2020. The ASEAN bloc said it would cooperate to prevent blockages, such as the ban on medical exports that some members had started to enforce as the pandemic emerged.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said COVID-19 is a “common enemy” that the region needs to fight together.

“ASEAN should collaborate to keep trading routes and supply lines open, especially for essential goods, such as food and medical supplies,” he told his counterparts in video call last month.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin echoed his sentiments to protect “critical infrastructure for trade.”

“We must also guard against imposition of unnecessary restriction on the flow of medical [supplies], food and essential supplies,” he said.

Supplies ‘save lives’

Malaysia is this year’s chair of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation bloc, whose officials have expressed alarm at the risk of shortages.

From the Philippines to Indonesia, nurses have worried they do not have enough gloves and masks to help protect them from contracting the coronavirus.

“Ensuring that trade policy is in place, providing access to the much-needed medical goods will save lives,” Dr. Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria, APEC Secretariat executive director and a former Malaysian trade official, said.

She noted in an earlier statement that supply chains “may still have vulnerabilities, bottlenecks and integrity issues. Many around the world have not been spared shortages of medical equipment, medicines and basic protective equipment.”

Mutual accusations

Around the world, nations have tried to keep gear for themselves to fight the pandemic. European governments accused each other and the United States of confiscating protective equipment en route. Colombia, India and Russia are among dozens of nations that suspended exports of some medical supplies.

In Southeast Asia, there have been similar export bans from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, such as of hand sanitizer and masks. Most have since rolled back the bans.

Observers say states should avoid tariffs and export quotas because they can create a vicious cycle of retaliation from other states, as well as create backups in the supply chain that keep medical gear from going where it is most needed. The pandemic has also caused some governments to issue bans on certain food exports as consumers stay home and hoard staples.

The ASEAN bloc has been able to roll back some of the restrictions, in part because it has started to emerge from the crisis. For instance, ASEAN chair Vietnam has had no local transmissions of the virus for more than a month and no surge of infections to overwhelm its health care system. It scrapped its restrictions on the export of surgical masks April 29, leading to an export boom for the 20 domestic firms that make them.

“Vietnamese textile and garment firms have been receiving constant orders,” the government said in a post on its website this month.