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Establishing humanitarian lanes during COVID-19

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Essential workers have their noses swabbed before returning to the workforce at a regional screening center amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Singapore 9 June, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su).

In Brief

COVID-19 is severely impacting the humanitarian system. It has forced countries to focus on containing the pandemic with national lockdown measures — hindering humanitarian action and denying aid to many affected communities in the Asia Pacific. But countries in the region have begun negotiations to normalise international travel, with Australia and New Zealand being the first to initiate bilateral discussions over the establishment of a ‘Trans-Tasman bubble’ and a ‘humanitarian corridor’ to the Pacific during the pandemic.


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In Southeast Asia, Singapore and China have opened up a ‘green lane’ to restore connectivity and essential business travel. Singapore is also in discussions with Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. These developments bode well for the countries involved, but they also exclude the countries most affected by COVID-19 and at risk of disasters. Travel restrictions will continue to delay the provision of much-needed humanitarian supplies and expertise to the region’s most vulnerable countries.

The countries involved in discussions to restart international travel bilaterally are important humanitarian logistical hubs, as well as significant funders and providers of humanitarian action.

Australia and New Zealand are particularly important humanitarian contributors in the Asia Pacific. Brisbane is home to the largest pre-positioned stockpile of humanitarian relief supplies in the region — capable of responding to two simultaneous disasters. Warehouses in Sydney and Papua New Guinea also contribute to Australia’s capacity to support 11,500 households or 57,500 individuals. Malaysia is home to the United Nations Humanitarian Relief Depot in Subang and houses UN, ASEAN and Australian humanitarian supplies. Singapore’s Changi and South Korea’s Incheon airports are also important hubs to countries across the Asia Pacific.

The expeditious facilitation of humanitarian supplies and personnel to areas in the region that are affected by natural disasters, conflict prone and gripped by the pandemic requires urgent consideration.

Humanitarian crises create a temporary spike in the demand for certain relief items. Such demand has already been exacerbated by the disruption of supply chains and travel routes resulting in inadequate relief to affected populations. The establishment of ‘humanitarian lanes’ to facilitate the quick transfer and distribution of humanitarian relief must be prioritised.

The ‘Pacific Pathway’ agreed by Pacific Island countries in the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) will expedite cooperation between member states on COVID-19 relief. It aims to streamline the customs clearance of medical supplies and facilitate diplomatic clearance for chartered flights and commercial shipping within the region. The Philippines uses a ‘One-Stop Shop’ model, bringing together multiple agencies to more effectively facilitate customs and excise for humanitarian relief items supported by the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management. It has empowered local governments to take a leading role in disaster management.

A successful humanitarian lane should go further and link the international humanitarian community with all affected communities. It should provide a platform to engage local alternative suppliers and access partners in addition to facilitating the entry of goods and personnel. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of building local capacity to respond to disasters, particularly as travel restrictions hamper the movement of international humanitarian workers. Sharing disaster management experiences between affected countries in ASEAN and the PIF is important for finding adaptive solutions and building new networks.

The urgency to build local capacity and resilience is even more pressing in the Asia Pacific as the monsoon season starts. Communities exposed to cyclones and typhoons will be doubly affected. The pandemic has already created greater inefficiencies in humanitarian disaster response. In the Philippines, social distancing measures kept evacuation centres after Cyclone Vongfong at 50 per cent occupancy and slowed the evacuation of some 180,000 people.

In Vanuatu, Cyclone Harold caused catastrophic damage when it struck in April 2020. Measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 severely hampered critical relief efforts due to restrictions on incoming cargo and the banning of foreign aid workers. Humanitarian relief items were initially quarantined under Vanuatu’s state of emergency for seven days, later reduced to three days.

At a time when affected communities require humanitarian support, COVID-19 lockdown measures have restricted humanitarian access to people most in need. Donor, transit and recipient countries must work together to overcome the hurdles posed emergency relief by COVID-19. As countries begin to ease lockdown restrictions, it is important to consider how humanitarian lanes across ASEAN and Pacific Island states can link global support with strengthening local capacity and communities in need.

Alistair DB Cook is Coordinator of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Programme and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre), S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Christopher Chen is an Associate Research Fellow, NTS Centre, RSIS, NTU.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

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