Asean to Take Tough Joint Action

SARS is taking its toll on Southeast Asian economies as travel advisories warn businessmen and tourists to steer clear of countries with high numbers of SARS cases. To combat further economic damage, ASEAN leaders convened in an emergency summit in Bangkok to agree on a unified strategy for containing the spread of SARS and reducing the panic that has been caused by it. In the proposal, people from one ASEAN country will not be denied entry to another member country. – YaleGlobal

Asean to Take Tough Joint Action

Leaders agree on strict measures to contain spread of Sars in region
Bertha Henson
Wednesday, April 30, 2003

ASEAN leaders hammered out a common strategy to combat Sars yesterday, putting in place a series of coordinated measures to keep their borders open while ensuring that the scourge will be contained.

It was an endorsement of Singapore's Sars methods when Asean declared that having a strategy to prevent, detect and isolate the bug as well as those who have caught it was the way to go.

Aware of the toll Sars was taking on their economies, Asean leaders called on the international community to avoid indiscriminately advising people not to visit Sars-affected countries as this would choke economic growth.

The 10 Asean leaders who attended yesterday's emergency summit in Bangkok agreed that Sars engendered more panic than pain inflicted in terms of health and lives.

It was a point made by the World Health Organisation's communicable diseases chief David Heymann in his briefing to the leaders, as well as Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

'The fear of Sars is worse than Sars itself,' said Mr Thaksin, who conceded that Thailand itself had over-reacted initially when it ordered that travellers from Sars-affected areas be masked or face penalties.

But it had been better to over-react at the start than 'under-react', he said.

Mr Goh noted that just as panicked investors provoked the 1997 Asian financial crisis, panic over Sars was now keeping people away from hotels and restaurants - and whole countries.

Travellers were even spooked at the idea of changing flights at airports in countries affected by Sars.

Mr Goh said that the airports were fine, and gave a guarantee that Singapore's Changi Airport was clean and posed no danger to passengers.

Because closing the borders would kill economies, measures at a country's exit and entry points must be in place to ensure that the virus is contained.

Vietnam had shown that the Sars bug could be contained, and the country has been declared Sars-free by the WHO.

Mr Goh, who initiated the emergency summit, spoke at the wrap-up press conference with Mr Thaksin, Cambodian premier Hun Sen and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, who had come from Beijing to join the discussions.

Unlike past Asean meetings, yesterday's Bangkok summit was unprecedented for the speed with which the leaders agreed on a tough, collective response to the public health crisis they faced and the slew of concrete measures proposed.

Beyond calling for a greater understanding of the nature of the virus and its transmission, they pledged to set up a network to share information on Sars and have standardised health declaration cards and temperature checks for air passengers.

With such checks in place, a citizen of an Asean country should not be denied entry to another Asean country on suspicion of Sars, but given access to medical help.

Such a proposal would help prevent another situation like the one a Singaporean found himself in, when he was turned away from Phuket in Thailand and had to be flown home alone on a special flight.

It is understood that some Asean countries which do not have a Sars problem baulked at having rigid health screening measures but came round when it was pointed out that without them, there would be a gap in the Asean containment strategy.

Airport authorities in Asean member-countries are expected to meet to discuss the health screening standards.

While the leaders took on board all the suggestions that their health ministers had hammered out on Saturday, they also worked out a mechanism to monitor the implementation of the measures.

Much of the information-sharing work will be borne by the Asean secretariat based in Jakarta.

The leaders hoped that the rest of the world will jump on board their strategy.

They have called on the health ministers of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping to meet to control the Sars spread.

Mr Goh stressed that the Sars scourge was not just an East Asian problem, given that it has spread to 35 countries.

Countries outside East Asia might want to follow Asean's lead and take steps to prevent infections while research institutes, particularly those in the United States, should work on a diagnostic kit, a cure and a vaccine.

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