/ / Insight


This month’s Insight article comes from the AHA Centre’s own Deputy Executive Director, Arnel Capili.

What if another major earthquake triggers a tsunami somewhere along the vast coastline of Indonesia? Or a super typhoon devastates one of the many islands of the Philippines? Would these countries, or other vulnerable nations in Southeast Asia, be more willing to accept international assistance in light of the pandemic?

Before the current pandemic, we saw a shift in some of the region’s countries’ policy to implement nationally-led disaster responses – with any support from the international community based on specific priorities. This was true during the Central Sulawesi earthquake in 2018, where the Government of Indonesia clearly manifested that the response was local, and that any offers of international assistance should be in-line with identified gaps, and channeled through local partners (such as the local Red Cross, local NGOs, and local government).

This tendency of governments to temper overwhelming “love and support” can be traced back from their experience of having a secondary disaster — a ‘tsunami’ of unsolicited assistance after the 2004 Banda Aceh tsunami, and super typhoon “Haiyan” (2013). The assumption is that the donations and support teams posed increased challenges for the governments of Indonesia and the Philippines, so much so that it eclipsed the well-intentioned purpose.

So then, are countries in the region more willing to accept offers of international assistance during a disaster in the middle of COVID-19 pandemic? Let us examine possible scenarios to provide some insights, and initiate conversations about how to plan responses to natural disasters in light of the pandemic.

In the short term, countries in the region will probably remain steadfast with their preference for a more nationally-led response. Understanding that most countries in the region have very strict restrictions on movement – particularly from ‘foreigners’ who are potential carriers of the virus – cash or remote technical support will be preferred. Durable goods may be accepted on the basis of diplomatic relations. For political considerations, offers from ‘friendly’ countries may be accepted to maintain good relationships, as well as in the interest of reciprocity. Regional organisations such as ASEAN may be accorded more space to reduce international humanitarian footprint.

In the longer-term, and if the threat of the pandemic persists, there is a potential for countries in the region to reconsider this position. The policy shift will stem from the fact that government resources – including its frontline services – may be exhausted. With an economic downturn and the mounting pressure to support communities, governments may be more flexible to accept international assistance. Although still considered to be a national response, governments may extend greater flexibility allowing exemptions and greater access to the international humanitarian community.

Regardless, national authorities will carefully weigh-in on issues related to national capacity and domestic politics. For a country reeling from the effects of COVID-19, food and durable goods such as mobile storage units, health and hygiene kits, and the required logistics to move them will be prioritised. Planning and anticipation are key for issues surrounding entry and quarantine requirements, certifications of compliance to national standards for medical teams and their equipment, and special handling requirements for relief items (disinfecting at port of entry for example).

One thing is undeniable – disasters during this pandemic will redefine how we do things. It will challenge how we think about humanitarian action, not just during the pandemic, but also how this model of response can be adapted post-pandemic. The difficulties faced during the pandemic have shown us that there are other ways to provide support aside from being on the ground, and that being first to assist is not necessarily a priority. Rather, it is more a profound need for greater thinking of how the international humanitarian community could enhance and add greater value to a nationally-led response.


Written by : Arnel Capili | Photo: AHA Centre