Southeast Asian leaders vow to cooperate in coronavirus fight

HANOI (Reuters) - Southeast Asian leaders agreed at their first video conference summit on Tuesday to fight together against the “gravest public health crisis” in 100 years to make the region safe again.

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Coronavirus cases in countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over the past month have soared to more than 20,000 from fewer than 840. The death toll has grown to 866 from 14, but due to limited testing in some countries, medical professionals suspect the real numbers may be much higher.

“COVID-19 is the gravest public health crisis ... in a century. It’s critical for us and ASEAN to mount a united response because of how connected and interdependent our countries are,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the meeting.

“None of us in ASEAN can be truly safe unless the entire region is safe,” said Lee.

The meeting, chaired by Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, agreed member states should “enhance cooperation” to combat COVID-19 in the region and ensure regional supply chains remain open, Vietnamese state broadcaster VTV reported.

COVID-19 is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus first encountered in Wuhan, China, at the end of last year.

The total number of infections in ASEAN countries has been surging, with Singapore reporting 386 new infections on Monday and the Philippines reporting 291 on Tuesday.

Indonesia has reported nearly 400 deaths, the highest toll in Asia after China, sparking concern about an escalating crisis in some parts of the region.

Phuc said the rate at which regional numbers were growing, however, was still slower than the global average.

To address the urgent needs of member states during the pandemic, ASEAN leaders agreed to establish a joint fund and medical stockpile, VTV reported, without providing details.

Reporting by Phuong Nguyen and James Pearson; Editing by Tom Hogue