Here’s How BIMP-EAGA Is Boosting Health Security at the Border
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is an urgent call for countries to work together to stop diseases from crossing borders.
In the BIMP-EAGA subregion, joint efforts to strengthen healthy security are being stepped up. These include the BIMP-EAGA One Borneo Quarantine Initiative, which increases cooperation in monitoring and inspection and enhances protection from pests and diseases. The signing of the Letter of Intent by all member countries on the implementation of the initiative is underway.
Although health cooperation is not part of the BIMP-EAGA development agenda, disease control is covered by its Working Group on Customs, Immigration, Quarantine, and Security (CIQS).
Standardizing pandemic response
Members of the working group met on 19 October 2020 to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the subregion and explore collaborative responses. The meeting served as a platform for exchanging information on the status of borders (including adjustments and re-openings), new guidelines for the safe movement of essential goods and people, and additional health measures.
The working group discussed potential collaboration in coordinated responses, strengthening health security systems, timely information via the BIMP-EAGA quarantine bulletin, and further improvements in CIQS, such as joint border surveillance and inspection in the wake of the pandemic and beyond. It was also proposed that the Quarantine Sub-Working Group draw up a BIMP-EAGA Pandemic Plan to institutionalize pandemic mitigation, preparedness, and response protocols of member countries at points of entry.
Vaccine deployment is another area of concern for the Working Group on CIQS, which looks at ways to facilitate transport and trade efficiently across the subregion. The delivery and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines are a critical logistical matter since these involve a temperature-controlled supply chain or “cold chain” to preserve vaccine efficacy and prevent wastage.
The Greater Mekong Subregion experience
BIMP-EAGA is also looking at successful initiatives in health security cooperation. In December, officials from the subregion attended a webinar hosted by the Asian Development Bank on the experience of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) in strengthening health systems and their capacity to quickly respond to public health threats, such as COVID-19.
Five of the six countries that make up the GMS are ASEAN members like BIMP-EAGA countries, and most of them have been able to keep COVID-19 infection and death rates low.
Rikard Elfving, a senior social sector specialist at ADB working on the GMS health portfolio, said the GMS experience shows that regional cooperation is an effective mechanism in responding to public health threats. “After COVID-19 we will likely have other viruses affecting the region. The cost of not investing in health is higher than investing in it.”
He said the key lessons from the GMS include investing in regional health security for the last 2 decades. The subregion is a hotspot for communicable diseases, such as drug-resistant malaria, because of the increasing flow of people and goods across borders. It created a working group on health cooperation and has a 5-year strategy to guide collective efforts in tackling health issues affecting the subregion. Together, these serve as an effective, efficient, and rapid deployment mechanism for responding to health threats as well as for innovative health initiatives, such as digital solutions.
Previous and ongoing projects of the GMS cover the sharing of surveillance data, training, and capacity building activities; protocols for joint outbreak investigation; laboratory quality and biosafety; hospital infection prevention and control; and regional cooperation on universal health coverage for migrants. One of the projects allows funds to be quickly reprogrammed to address major health emergencies. This proved useful in helping the countries purchase PPEs and other medical equipment and implement measures for disease control, such as the deployment of thermal scanners at points of entry.
Potential areas of cooperation
An important area for regional cooperation is harmonizing health protocols at the points of entry, said Eduardo Banzon, principal health specialist at ADB, at the webinar.
Across the world, many countries have been slow in reopening borders, including in the BIMP-EAGA subregion, since the risk of infection is still high and vaccines are short in supply.
Banzon said the pandemic may also be used as an opportunity to drive regional health reforms, such as the adoption of digital tools for healthcare (e.g., telemedicine, electronic health record).
Elfving said another area for regional cooperation is to build health systems that work with CIQS, which is vital to kickstarting travel and tourism.
BIMP-EAGA is promoting the subregion as a single destination for ecotourism. Tourism is one of its strategic pillars for development. In the new normal, this requires putting in place CIQS procedures that are pandemic-ready.