Indonesia, the current president of the Group of 20 (G20), has started talks with the group’s members to establish standardized health protocols for international travel as countries around the world gradually lift their border restrictions.
The issue was at the center of discussions among representatives of G20 members in the first Health Working Group (HWG) meeting, which was held in Yogyakarta in a hybrid format, on Monday.
Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin emphasized the need for countries to have common protocols for cross-border travel, adding that disconnected health protocols between countries have “increased costs, added complexity and caused inconvenience.”
“The pandemic has taught us how interconnected and interdependent we are,” said Budi in Yogyakarta on Monday.
“We, therefore, need to work together to mutually recognize digital health information, such as testing requirements and results, vaccination certificates and mutual recognition of digital applications.”
Budi added that Indonesia’s proposal would still adhere to the COVID-19 policies of respective G20 countries, including which vaccines, tests or testing authorities they would recognize to allow international travelers to come to their countries, insisting that Indonesia “respects the sovereignty of all nations.”
He also expressed the hope that if G20 members agreed common standards, the initiative could be expanded to other countries.
“The G20 [members] comprise the world’s 20 largest economies, which possibly have the largest numbers in terms of the (cross-border) movement of people,” said Budi. “By starting with the G20, it will further ease the adoption of standardized health protocols in other countries.”
Budi said Indonesia had discussed the harmonization of protocols with members of ASEAN and the European Union, while the government had held bilateral talks with Saudi Arabia to mutually recognize the two countries’ COVID-19 applications.
HWG co-chair Setiaji said Indonesia had been testing a universal digital portal to allow mutual recognition of COVID-19 vaccine certificates among the G20 members.
This initiative, which was discussed in Monday’s HWG discussion, was welcomed by fellow G20 members, he said, adding that he hoped the portal would be fully operational as Indonesia welcomed international delegations for the G20 Summit later this year.
“Hopefully, at the G20 [main] event in October, [the digital COVID-19 vaccine certificate] will be operational,” said Setiaji, who is also the Health Ministry’s chief digital transformation officer.
Harmonizing global health protocols is one of the HWG’s three priority agendas and is part of Indonesia’s greater goal of reforming the global health architecture, which is one of Indonesia’s priority areas during its G20 presidency this year. Aside from global health architecture reform, Indonesia also identified digital-based transformation and sustainable energy transition as the other priority areas as G20 president.
Indonesia has found itself walking a tightrope as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned the global economic forum into a diplomatic battlefield pitting the West against Russia, with United States President Joe Biden calling for Russia to be removed from the forum.
Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has expressed his reluctance to attend the upcoming summit if it means that he will sit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Minister Budi sidestepped the question when asked about the issue, saying “with the health sector, we can unite and cooperate.”
The proposed move comes as many countries, including Indonesia, gradually lift their border restrictions to revive the tourist and business travel sectors, which have been hurt by the pandemic.
Last week, the government waived mandatory quarantine periods for people who have received full vaccination or booster shots at least 14 days before their departure. The travelers, however, will still have to be tested upon their arrival and will be allowed to resume their journey without quarantine if their tests come back negative.
The decision was made after the government completed a two-week trial of quarantine-free international travel to Bali, Batam and Bintan. The results of the trial showed a “very low” positivity rate and a declining COVID-19 reproduction number, Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno said last week.
Also last week, the government announced that people would be allowed to go on mudik (exodus) – an Idul Fitri tradition in the Muslim-majority country, citing the encouraging COVID-19 situation in the country.
Garrett Mehl of the World Health Organization’s Digital Health Technology Unit said harmonizing health protocols for international travel was crucial, given that countries had been using different standards.
“There is an enormous number of certificate types that are being issued, and they are not necessarily compatible with each other,” Mehl said in a press conference on Monday.
He said that a common standard recognized across countries would help travelers to present their vaccination status or test results to relevant authorities, who in turn would also be able to verify such information.
Mehl said such a standard, if implemented, would be useful not only in the current situation, but also in future pandemics.
“Ideally, it would be something that will be appropriate for use if there is another pandemic,” he said.