ASEAN solidarity, regional responses crucial in COVID-19 fight

James Kon

Minister of Health Dato Seri Setia Dr Haji Mohd Isham bin Haji Jaafar shared Brunei Darussalam’s experiences of curbing the spread of COVID-19 through a ‘whole-of-nation’ approach, through a special video conferencing last Tuesday, at the ASEAN Health Ministers Meeting (AHMM).

Dato Seri Setia Dr Haji Mohd Isham said, “Since our first case on March 9, we have reported a total of 135 cases and one death from COVID-19. Lessons from neighbouring countries, through various platforms, including the ASEAN-EOC Network, ensured that we were prepared when we saw our first few cases, and we swiftly put in place a comprehensive suite of measures.”

He continued, “Our approach is a whole-of-nation response based on two fundamental principles. First, we aim to reduce morbidity and mortality through early detection. To do this, we have done our best to find, test, isolate and treat every case, and trace every contact. We have scaled up testing services, converting a sports complex into a dedicated 24-hour sampling centre, implemented sampling in primary health care centre in the community, and opened a new Molecular Diagnostic Unit for Respiratory Viruses that has increased our testing capacity ten-fold.

“So far, we have tested more than 8,000 individuals, giving us a test-to-population ratio of approximately one in 50 people.

“Secondly, we aim to slow and limit the spread of disease, to reduce the surge on the healthcare system. We are using a combination of travel restrictions and other social distancing measures, such as using digital technology to support remote learning and remote working, and have rolled out a public communications campaign to encourage personal hygiene and appropriate distancing during this time.

“At the same time, we continue to invest in healthcare, preparing for additional capacity in our system, with the opening of an extension of our National Isolation Centre, increasing its bed capacity by six-fold, equipped with critical care beds and ICU capable beds.”

The minister also said while the fight was not yet over, the signs have been encouraging.

The Games Village complex used as a quarantine centre. PHOTO: BAHYIAH BAKIR

He explained, “Four weeks since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Brunei, we are regaining some level of control over the situation. At the same time, however, we are well aware that no country can successfully contain this disease on its own. At this crucial time, ASEAN solidarity and a regional response is needed more than ever. Here, we wish to propose three avenues for greater cooperation among our ASEAN family.

“Firstly, even during this time when international travel has been temporarily restricted, we must ensure that the free exchange of knowledge, ideas, and best practices continue. Regional initiatives in data-sharing and clinical and public health research collaboration should be enhanced, and the outcomes disseminated in order to support member states who need our support. We believe that this is an urgent priority.

“Secondly, we need to start planning for how we can, as a region, de-escalate, in a safe and phased approach, always mindful of this disease’s capacity for resurgence. We should not rush to lift restrictions too quickly, but we should strengthen coordination among ASEAN member states of how we will go about slowly lifting movement restrictions and other such measures, with the understanding that this may require a country-by-country approach.”

He also stated, “There will come a day when we defeat this pandemic, and will have to adjust to a new normal. This will not be without cost to our health systems and economies. It will therefore be crucial that we set out a collective vision for how we want this recovery to look like in our region.

“Brunei Darussalam looks to continuing collaboration with our ASEAN family on this important issue, and remains committed to doing our part in ensuring the health security of our region and beyond.”

The special video conferencing was for ministers to have a strategic discussion about the directions and areas of healthcare in ASEAN to address the COVID-19 pandemic; share updated information on each countries action to curb the spread of the disease; and get consensus in enhancing cooperation and coordination for strengthening national and regional responses to curb COVID-19.

The special video conferencing of the ASEAN Health Ministers Meeting was officiated by Health Minister of the Republic of Indonesia Lieutenant General (Rtd) Terawan Agus Putranto, as the chair of the AHMM, with a focus on raising cooperation towards curbing the spread of COVID-19 in the region.