In the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, national lockdowns have led to panic buying as consumers feared food supply shortages in ASEAN countries. For many countries, it has exposed a dependency on foreign nations for staple foods that are not produced natively.
Malaysia is a huge exporter of fresh produce such as fruit, eggs and vegetables, serving many countries intra-regionally within Asia. The decision to close its borders for two weeks in March led to a ripple effect of panic-buying in Singapore, a country heavily reliant on food imports.
Huge price rises in staple foods such as rice have consequences that go beyond hunger. As much of Southeast Asia is characterised as ‘developing’, higher consumer spending on basic sustenance heightens the risk of poverty and unemployment. Major food producers such as Vietnam felt compelled to take direct action, temporarily stopping rice exports to ensure they have enough for its own citizens. As a result, ASEAN nations have called for greater intra-region co-operation for 650 million people living in its member states.
At a recent ‘special ASEAN summit on Covid-19’, President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte said: “No country can stand alone. Let us ensure that the supply chain connectivity and smooth flow of foods is within our reach.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed a huge dependency on China for manufacturing, encouraging a rethink on critical infrastructure. As a response, ASEAN has promoted an economic recovery plan that focuses not only on the economy but also on social safety nets, food security and education.
Also, there are indirect economic benefits of greater protections for local food and beverage producers that prioritise regional self-sufficiency. Agri-food industries are a major employer in South East Asia and account for a large share of economic output. Foods such as corn, rice and soy are exported around the world, making its food value chain a key contributor to approximately 17% of ASEAN’s total GDP, as reported by Food Industry Asia.
As Covid-19 peak passes, most countries worldwide are beginning to ease lockdown measures. ASEAN’s commitment indicates a reluctance to revert to its former ‘comfort zone’, but instead develop Southeast Asia into a growth centre and powerhouse. Attempts to establish a Covid-19 ASEAN Response Fund will boost existing emergency stockpiles for any future outbreaks, ensuring local food producers prepare for the new normal.