Indonesia has the highest number of infections with COVID-19 in ASEAN, but it remains the only country in the region to avoid the general lockdown. However, as with other ASEAN nations, air travel remains highly restrictive.
The wait may be over for the vaccine, but before opening the borders, Indonesia or ASEAN can not afford to wait for it to function. We should begin working towards an ASEAN-wide travel bubble before we achieve herd immunity by extending, updating and consolidating the myriad of unilateral and bilateral travel agreements that currently exist in the area.
In ASEAN, travel corridors or ‘green lanes’ are the most common, which allow reciprocal travel under strict conditions, such as pre-arranged itineraries, with testing but without quarantine for select groups such as businessmen.
Air travel passes, however, arbitrarily extend these terms to all passengers in order to have a big effect on the economy. Singapore has been leading the effort in ASEAN to seek air travel passes with partners, such as Brunei Darussalam and Vietnam, that have regulated group transmission. More is required.
If the partner reciprocates to build a two-way quarantine-free travel bubble, the economic advantages of travel passes may be improved. Perceptions of health threats associated with opening borders need to converge across countries in order for this to happen.
Harmonization of COVID-19 screening and quarantine protocols should be included in the strategy to maintain the integrity of country-wide risk mitigation controls while enabling smooth movement to reap full benefits from the rise in size.
When set up, the institutional framework will help to deal on a consistent basis with emerging problems, such as vaccinations. Although countries which vary in terms of how and when they want to accept vaccinations, let alone various vaccines, these issues need to be resolved in a way that does not discourage short-term travel, while harmonization is sought in the longer term to narrow differences. A travel balloon that is properly built might do that.
ASEAN Leaders acknowledged at the recently concluded ASEAN Summit in Hanoi the ability of travel bubbles to securely open borders to facilitate regional economic recovery. In moving towards an ASEAN travel balloon, a prudent and gradual approach will give economic growth a fillip, but have ample safeguards that will kick in if infections move north again.