Today is an auspicious day to commemorate World Health Day, as the number of cases and severity of Covid-19 have been reduced to manageable levels, thanks to global efforts, especially in vaccine rollouts. However, we are not in the clear yet and emerging variants and infectious diseases compel us to turn to longer-term strategies for building resilience.
The theme Our Planet, Our Health particularly resonates with the Asean. As a region endowed with abundant and unique biodiversity that is crucial to our socio-economic development, the Asean is at the same time vulnerable to new and emerging diseases.
Studies indicate that biodiversity loss appears to be associated with the increasing occurrence of zoonotic diseases. Historically, the region has suffered from outbreaks such as the Nipah virus in 1998, the SARs virus in 2003 and the highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza in 1997.
Implicated in these outbreaks are bat species, wild birds, and pangolins known to be natural reservoirs of these viruses. The Southeast Asian region is known to be rich in this wildlife that, if protected and maintained in healthy populations, can keep zoonotic diseases in check.
The Covid-19 crisis surfaced the reliance of public health and well-being on healthy ecosystems and rich biodiversity. In response to Covid-19, Asean leaders have underscored the significance of cross-sectoral cooperation in recovering and building resilience. The Asean Comprehensive Recovery Framework articulates broad strategies and identifies measures for recovery in line with sectoral and regional priorities. It enjoins communities and various sectors to collaborate in key areas including ecosystem-based approaches to increase resilience against future pandemics.
The pandemic likewise brought to the fore the need to integrate nature and biodiversity into health plans and programs and a holistic approach to achieving better outcomes for human, animal, and environmental health. Across the region, Asean member states have been implementing species-specific conservation actions, promoting urban biodiversity to build resilience and enhancing synergies—steps that contribute to achieving an integrated approach to address public health issues. Policies and mechanisms for implementing wildlife laws are also in place to help address the illegal and unsustainable use of wildlife at the local, national, and international levels.
Some of the Asean member states’ initiatives include the wildlife disease surveillance program of Malaysia that monitors wildlife diseases through their One Health framework. The links between the human, domestic animal, and wildlife health sectors are coordinated through the Inter-Ministerial Committee on the Control of Zoonotic Diseases. Similarly, the Philippine Interagency Committee on Zoonoses recognizes the importance of strong coordination between the animal-human-health and environment sectors to prevent and control zoonotic diseases at the national and local levels.
In Vietnam, the Vietnam One Health Partnership for Zoonoses (OHP) was established even before the Covid-19 pandemic, enhancing their capacity and preparedness against zoonotic diseases. Meanwhile, in Singapore, information dissemination is among the priority of the One Health Protocol to ensure that medical practitioners, stakeholders, and the public can make informed decisions and participate in prevention and control.
The One Health approach is now being welcomed as it opens more potential for the Asean—a biodiverse region—to exemplify leadership in underscoring nature’s central role in bouncing back better and building resilience to reduce risks of future pandemics.
As the regional center of excellence, the Asean Center for Biodiversity (ACB) stands to continually support the Asean member states in advocating for an integrated approach toward recovery. With the help of our dialogue and development partners, we contribute to the efforts of the countries in ensuring that biodiversity, including wildlife species and critical ecosystems, is effectively managed to achieve long-term benefits for the health of the people and the planet.
The road toward full recovery will be long and arduous. We draw strength and inspiration from this year’s Asean Summit theme ASEAN ACT: Addressing Challenges Together under the Chairship of Cambodia, which also reflects our symbiotic relationship with nature. We are only strong as we are together, thus we must continue to forge robust linkages to ensure the health of our people and our planet.
The author is the Executive Director of the Asean Centre for Biodiversity.