Southeast Asian Leaders Highlight COVID-19 Concerns at Virtual UN General Assembly

BenarNews staff
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200922-PH-un-620 Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appears on a video screen while delivering his first address to a nearly empty United Nations General Assembly in New York because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sept. 22, 2020.
[Screengrab from Reuters video]

In speeches marking the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, Southeast Asian leaders called on the international community Tuesday to coordinate efforts against COVID-19 and make vaccines for it accessible to all people worldwide.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin both talked about the pandemic in their first-ever speeches to the U.N. General Assembly – pre-recorded from their home countries and presented during the meeting. For the first time, this year’s annual meeting of the assembly is being held virtually because of health-related concerns around the highly infections and potentially deadly virus.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi also spoke out about the need for international cooperation in the battle against the global coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 is “the biggest test the world and the U.N. has faced since World War II,” Duterte said, adding, “How we address COVID-19 will define our future.”

“While each nation has its own strategy in fighting the pandemic, what the world needs are coordinated international plans and efforts to pursue a common purpose,” Duterte said. “COVID-19 knows no border. It knows no nationality. It knows no race. It knows no gender. It knows no age. It knows no creed.”

The Philippine leader said a race was on to find a safe and effective vaccine for the virus.

The Philippines, followed by Indonesia, leads all countries in East Asia in confirmed COVID-19 cases.

“Access must not be denied. It should be made available to all rich and poor nations alike,” said Duterte. The Philippine president had spurned previous annual sessions of the General Assembly in New York since his election in 2016 because of U.N. criticism about extrajudicial killings carried out during his administration’s bloody crackdown on illegal drugs.

Muhyiddin, who took office in March, noted that he was speaking from his home country because of the global pandemic.

“It has taken so many lives and has exposed the true capacity and effectiveness of our health care systems. The socio-economic impact has been just as severe,” he said.

“On this, we must ensure that once a vaccine is found, it must be accessible to all nations and peoples. There should not be any discrimination whatsoever. We must remember that since COVID-19 does not discriminate, our response should not too.”

Honoring the U.N. on the anniversary of its founding in 1945, Muhyiddin said the world peace-making body was needed now more than ever.

“However, the organization needs to be better equipped – not just with political latitude, but with the continued support of its member states to respond to some of the most glaring problems the world is facing,” he said without listing those problems.

Retno, who addressed the General Assembly on Monday, issued a short-term goal of making sure that medications and vaccines to combat the pandemic are available to all across the globe. Her boss, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, was scheduled to address the U.N. on Wednesday morning (Jakarta time).

“In this spirit, Indonesia co-facilitated the General Assembly resolution on ‘Global Solidarity to Fight Covid-19’ that recognized the U.N. central role in fighting the pandemic,” Retno said.

Long term, she called on the U.N. to strengthen the global health system.

And during his remarks to the world body on Monday, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc praised his country – with the help of others – in controlling the coronavirus pandemic.

“Thanks to the collaboration with all international partners and with our own efforts, Vietnam has managed to basically contain the COVID-19, and a strong rebound of our economy is expected to follow,” he said.

‘Epochal health crisis’

In his welcoming statement to this year’s virtual meeting, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed his own concerns about the coronavirus.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our annual meeting beyond recognition,” he said. “But it has made it more important than ever.”

“We face simultaneously an epochal health crisis, the biggest economic calamity and job losses since the Great Depression and dangerous new threats to human rights,” Guterres said. “COVID-19 has laid bare the world’s fragilities.”

He called on the member nations to act in solidarity, noting that little assistance had been offered to countries most in need. He added that efforts “must be guided by science and tethered to reality.”

“COVID-19 is not only a wake-up call, it is a dress rehearsal for the world of challenges to come,” Guterres said. “We must move forward with humility – recognizing that a microscopic virus has brought the world to its knees. 

“We must be united. We have seen, when countries go in their own direction, the virus goes in every direction.”

The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have all been ravaged to some degree by the pandemic, whose ripple effects have also inflicted deep economic damage on them.

The Philippines has recorded 291,789 cases and 5,049 deaths; Indonesia has 252,923 cases and 9,837 deaths; and Malaysia has 10,358 cases and 130 deaths, according to disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University. Globally, more than 31.4 million have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 966,000 have died.

Duterte called on the General Assembly to ensure that the U.N.’s World Health Organization had the resources it needs to battle COVID-19.

“We need a WHO that is quick to coordinate and quicker to respond. The Philippines will do its part in the pooling of global resources. Our health workers are among the best,” he said.


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