vaccine insecurity in Southeast Asia
On March 12, 2021, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — known as the “Quad” — met at a virtual summit to discuss concerning issues across the Indo-Pacific. The Quad comprises Australia, Japan, the United States and India. Recently, they committed to providing one billion vaccines to the Indo-Pacific by 2022. The main focus is on Southeast Asia, which is struggling to inoculate its population. In other words, the Quad is taking on vaccine insecurity in Southeast Asia.

The Quad’s History

The Quad, which was formed in 2004, is a meeting format for the four influential democracies in the Indo-Pacific to discuss regional security issues. Originally, these democracies coordinated joint search and rescue missions and humanitarian aid in response to the Boxing Day Tsunami’s decimation of large areas of South and Southeast Asia. From there, the Quad met one more time in 2007 before disbanding for a decade.

However, the group began reconvening again at a ministerial level in 2017. The members became mutually concerned over the terrorism and Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific. As a result, the four foreign policies began supporting a rules-based international system and a free and open Indo-Pacific. This intersection had a heightened sense of importance as the group convened its first-ever leader-level summit in March 2021.

The motivation of the organization is not entirely clear. Some refer to it as an “Asian-Nato” intent on countering China‘s rise in the region. Others claim it is a group of like-minded, influential states coordinating responses to some of the most pressing issues of the day, including the environment, terrorism, COVID-19 response and humanitarian aid.

“The Spirit of the Quad”

Despite how others define the Quad’s intent, the latest summit concentrated less on geopolitics and more on issues plaguing the region. It released a statement entitled “The Spirit of the Quad.” This shared how the group focused on important humanitarian and anti-poverty issues of democratic values. Some of these are international law, infrastructure investment and disaster relief. Nevertheless, the most pressing issue the summit addressed was the coronavirus pandemic.

During the summit, the Quad “pledged to respond to the economic and health impacts of COVID-19.” It will do this by “building on the progress countries have achieved on health security [and] expand safe, affordable and effective vaccine production and equitable access, to speed economic recovery and benefit global health.”

The Plan

To achieve these results, the Quad will utilize the individual strengths of each member. For example, India is one of the largest vaccine developers in the world. Even before COVID-19, it developed 60% of the world’s vaccines. The Deloitte consulting firm partner, PS Earwaran, predicts that the Indian government will produce nearly 3.5 billion doses in 2021.

However, to increase that amount, the United States will provide technology and intellectual property rights to improve production methods. In addition, Japan will help finance the production upgrades. For Australia’s part, it will also assist with financing. More importantly, however, it will utilize its unique distribution capacity in Southeast Asia.

Additionally, the Quad will work through international organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and COVAX. COVAX is particularly important because it is an international vaccine program. This program supports vaccine accessibility in the underdeveloped world. The goal of the COVAX program is to distribute two billion doses of vaccines to 94 lower and middle-income countries by the end of 2021.

Notably, the Quad is prioritizing Southeast Asia in its vaccine distribution. As the National Security Advisor for President Joe Biden, Jake Sullivan stated, “The Quad committed to delivering one billion doses to ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the Indo-Pacific and beyond by the end of 2022.”

Vaccine Insecurity in Southeast Asia

At first glance, Southeast Asia seemingly would not need the Quad’s focus due to its successful handling of the pandemic. The Sydney-based Lowy Institute created a performance index and ranking of 98 states and how each government handled the pandemic. The institute found that five of the seven Southeast Asian nations included were in the top 24 states. This ranked higher than Germany, Japan and the United States.

However, purchasing and distributing vaccines takes a different set of administrative skills and resources than containing a virus, leaving poorer nations more vulnerable. In other words, upper-middle-income countries with the administrative ability and resources like Singapore could hit widespread inoculation by mid-2022. Yet, with Vietnam being the exception, the rest of Southeast Asia is not likely to fair as well. The Economist Intelligence Unit recently reported that a bulk of the region’s population, including Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines and Indonesia, will take at least two years, maybe longer, to reach widespread vaccination.

It is not just poorer nations in the region that are struggling to inoculate their population. Although Malaysia is a middle-income country that just initiated a historic immunization program, it is struggling to vaccinate its entire population at an efficient rate. As of March 19, 2021, Malaysia had administered on average 22,215 vaccinations a week with a total of 367,213 doses. Assuming that everyone will need two doses each, this means only 0.6% of the population has received vaccinations. At that rate, it will take another 288 days to reach 10% of the population.

Although Southeast Asia has been relatively successful in containing the outbreak, it clearly needs assistance in vaccinating its population. In March 2021, the Quad committed to pooling each state’s comparative resources and expertise to take on vaccine insecurity in Southeast Asia. The Quad’s commitment is critical for the region’s health and post-pandemic recovery.

– Vincenzo Caporale
Photo: Wikipedia Commons