Written by: Hao Yang Joshua Mok, student intern at the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney (CAPLUS)
On 28 May 2021, the University of Victoria’s Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives (CAPI), together with the University of Sydney’s Centre for Asian and Pacific Law (CAPLUS) and the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), hosted an online webinar celebrating the publication of ‘Covid-19 in Asia – Law and Policy Context’. A recording of the webinar may be accessed here.
Edited by Prof. Victor V. Ramraj and published by Oxford University Press, the book is a collected volume on Covid-19 law and policy issues in Asia. It draws upon the work of sixty-one authors from seventeen jurisdictions and aims to capture the initial responses of governments in response to the pandemic and highlight likely enduring legal and policy challenges.
The online webinar drew on four chapters of the book, focusing on China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Japan’s responses to the pandemic.
- The China chapter was presented by A/Prof. Feng Xu from the University of Victoria and discussed by A/Prof. Jeanne Huang from the University of Sydney.
- The Indonesia chapter was presented by Dr. Nadirsyah Hosen from Monash University and discussed by Prof. Simon Butt from the University of Sydney.
- The Malaysia chapter was presented by Dr. Azmil Tayeb from Universiti Sains Malaysia.
- The Japan chapter was presented by Prof. Shigenori Matsui from the University of British Columbia. Prof. Luke Nottage from the University of Sydney briefly discussed both the Malaysia and Japan chapters.
A/Prof. Xu began her presentation with a reflection of China’s largely successful Covid-19 response. She suggested that we must contextualize China’s experience as an interrelationship between coercion and consent: China’s success in imposing and enforcing strict lockdown and quarantine measures required the acceptance and consent of individuals to those conditions. Turning to the book chapter itself, A/Prof. Xu suggested that China’s emergency response involved the mass mobilization of political, economic, and social resources. While effective, such measures came at a huge cost to individual rights. A/Prof. Xu concluded that the most immediate challenge for China will be the roll-out of its vaccination program.
A/Prof. Huang echoed this theme of consent and emphasized the limited scope of the right to privacy and personal information in China. While this allowed health administrators to access personal data when managing the pandemic, it reflects the tension between coercion and consent. Drawing on her area of focus, A/Prof. Huang provided some brief remarks on civil litigation against China arising out of the pandemic – raising issues of jurisdiction and service – as well as on China’s response to foreign criticism, exemplified by its trade dispute with Australia.
Dr. Hosen suggested that the Jokowi administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic had been too little, too late. Despite growing cases in South East Asia in early January, the government did not impose lockdown measures but rather further opened up the country. While the government eventually escalated its measures, the pandemic was already in full swing. Dr. Hosen argued that there were four barriers that contributed to the slow response and ineffectiveness of governmental measures: first, the unhealthy relationship between the Indonesian Medical Association and the Minister of Health Affairs; second, the political rivalry between President Jokowi’s administration and the current governor of Jakarta; third, the incompetence of the Jokowi cabinet; finally, the position of conservative religious groups in rejecting the request not to organize mass prayers.
In Prof. Butt’s discussion, he suggested that issues of governance, politicking, and religion are not new issues for Indonesia. Rather, they have been brought to sharp relief by the pandemic. Moreover, putting aside the government’s shortcomings, the size and geography of Indonesia presents significant difficulty. Prof. Butt concluded that looking forward, the biggest difficulty for Indonesia would be to obtain and administer vaccines in the face of those persistent issues.
Dr. Tayeb discussed issue of improvised pandemic policy and democratic regression in Malaysia. In the lead up to the Covid-19 pandemic, Malaysia was experiencing a volatile political environment which eventually resulted in a new coalition coming into power in late February 2020. Shortly thereafter, Covid-19 emerged, and the government responded by implementing strict lockdown measures. While those measures were initially successful, the country experienced a turning point. Under the backdrop of a continued power struggle, state by-elections were occurring without much restriction. This led to another wave of Covid-19 cases. Dr. Tayeb suggested that throughout the pandemic, the government’s response evinced incoherency. Moreover, the government has been using the pandemic to avoid the convening of parliament, undermining notions of accountability and transparency.
Prof. Matsui suggested that Japan was ill-prepared to deal with the pandemic and its eventual response was slow and insufficient. The difficulty was with Japan’s fragmented and restrictive infectious disease legal infrastructure. While the government eventually revised its statute and declared a state of emergency, only soft measures were imposed, because of initial legal constraints and the effectiveness of social norms. Fortunately, infection rates and death toll remained low in Japan throughout 2020. Now, however, Japan has experienced a resurgence in Covid-19 cases and there is a growing fear that this will worsen with the Tokyo Olympics. The biggest issue ahead for Japan is with its vaccination program, especially given concerns about vaccine hesitancy among the public.
Prof. Nottage went on to compare Malaysia and Japan’s responses during the Covid-19 pandemic. He suggested that in terms of balancing public health, civil liberties, and economic activity, Japan appeared to be quite successful. Prof. Nottage queried the reasons behind vaccine hesitancy this year, especially given the communitarian norms evident last year, as vaccination programs constitute the next complex phase in pandemic management in Australia, across Asia and world-wide.