COVID-19 Op-ed

Engendering a Culture of Prevention in a Post-COVID-19 World: Environmental Protection in the ASEAN Region

Tobit P. Abao

Current empirical findings on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 claims that the virus came from bats like the MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV and was likely passed through an intermediary host, believed to be pangolins (Zhang, Zhang and Zheng, 2020), before being transmitted to humans (Center for Disease Control, 2020). Zoonotic transmission of the dreaded disease thus fuelled clamour for the end of wildlife trade and stronger biological researches.We should look at the bigger picture. Although a ban on wildlife trade is pivotal, preventing future outbreaks (or pandemics) should be anchored on an overarching standard for environmental protection. Scientists maintained that future outbreaks that could even be more deadly than COVID-19 can occur anywhere. Conservationists thus are not overstating the fact when they emphasized taking care of nature as a preventive strategy.First, human incursion to previously untouched wildlife ecosystems increased our risks of contracting deadly pathogens and outbreaks (Vyawahare, 2020). Second, this outbreak is just the tip of the iceberg. Svenja Schulze, Environment Minister of Germany stated that “science tells us that the destruction of ecosystems makes disease outbreaks, including pandemics more likely” (Vyawahare, 2020). Third, global warming has caused unprecedented melting of glaciers and icecaps in different regions. It will not only result to global rise of sea-levels, but may also cause the release of ancient frozen viruses and pathogens to nature (Fox-Skelly, 2017; Geggel, 2020). Scientists for example have recently discovered 28 never-before-seen virus groups in a Tibetan glacier (Geggel, 2020). Climate justice and prevention of pandemics are actually two faces in a single coin as climate change will most likely turn nature into a ticking time bomb leading to future pandemics.Addressing environmental problems is indispensible to prevent future outbreaks. However, free-riding and the unequal distribution of harms and benefits pose significant challenges in fostering a comprehensive climate regime in the international arena (Sang-Chul Suh, 2016; Climate Leadership Council, 2020). If there is something so common about pandemics and climate change, it is that they do not respect territorial boundaries and that both gravely affect vulnerable populations in developing countries.Shared Future, Environment-Centred GovernanceIt will be congruent with ASEAN’s interests to champion environmental cause. First, economic growth of the region is undergirded by its rich natural resources. Policy experts stressed the importance of environmental protection to the success of ASEAN Economic Integration (Greenpeace Philippines, 2014).  Second, the region has already lost a huge part of its biodiversity (The ASEAN Post, 2019) which could entail ecological repercussions. In the Philippines for example, the pangolins in Palawan have been poached to near extinction due to illegal trade. We cannot understate the need for collaborative environmental governance.However, there can be possible constraints towards this. First, the ASEAN Way and its emphasis to consensus and non-interference over domestic concerns have often been subjected to criticisms on its slow-pace and inability to set well-defined goals (Masilamani & Peterson, 2014). Second, developmental gaps among member-states can hamper the mainstreaming of environmental protection as nature has often been regarded as a post-materialist concern. Developing countries often sacrifice environment for economic growth.Nonetheless, significant steps had already been taken by the regional organization. Environmental agenda is included in the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASSC) and a mechanism has been put in place to tackle this matter (e.g. ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on the Environment). ASEAN also affirmed environmental sustainability on its Human Rights Declaration and has adopted the Declaration on Culture of Prevention which emphasized resilience and care for the environment. Much more can still be actually done. ASEAN should institutionalize environmental protection not just on one pillar, but in all facets of our integration. We need to foster a culture of environmental consciousness on our future endeavours of physical, institutional, and socio-cultural connectivity.

Localising Solutions towards Global Sustainability

This crisis provides a strong rationale for deeper integration and collaboration of different stakeholders to prevent a tragedy of the commons. In the Philippines, for example, we have well-crafted environmental laws which often lack political will and resources to enable effective enforcement. In addition, environmental activism has faced suppression. Last year, an international environmental watchdog reported the Philippines as the deadliest country for environmental activists (De Guzman, 2019). On the other hand, the judicial activism of the Philippine Supreme Court on environmental issues has been instrumental in keeping check of state institutions (Gonzalez, 2017). Further, the role of non-state actors such as civil society, indigenous people, and the academe has been indispensible in protecting the environment by serving as defenders and initiating conservation measures. Multi-sectoral collaboration thus works best towards sustainability and environmental justice.Now, more than ever, is that crucial time that sustainability and climate justice should be taken more seriously. ASEAN and the post-COVID world should envision an international order beyond cooperation on environmental matters, but rather collaboration; beyond mitigation and adaptation, but a strong culture of prevention.  In the web of life where everything is connected to everything else, protecting nature is tantamount to the preservation of human life. Finally, this pandemic and climate change reminds us of our interdependence as human beings. We cannot be safe unless everyone is safe.


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