COVID-19 Op-ed

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

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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 Governance
It 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

Localising Solutions towards Global

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


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