Covid-19: An update from Southeast Asia

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Southeast Asia has not been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic compared to other parts of the world. In fact, the region has registered only less than 2% of the total global infections. The success for most countries in the region is linked to the Draconian measures such as cross-border restrictions and lockdowns that have been implemented early on. In addition, some Southeast Asian nations have demonstrated transparent communications and implemented effective and low costs response measures such as mask wearing.

However, the imposed lockdown measures brought interruptions to global and local supply chains, and loss of revenue specifically in tourism and remittances resulting in a significant impact on their economies. Further, issues such as the decline of democracy and human rights have surfaced amidst the lockdown. This article aims to summarize the different approaches of the Southeast Asian countries in navigating through the coronavirus pandemic.

Brunei

Brunei has demonstrated a commendable COVID-19 management as their response has been quick and extensive. Massive testing was placed as early as January and travel bans for its citizens and foreigners were implemented in March. In addition, schools, mosques, and other worship places were closed, and public gatherings were restricted. They have also maximized technology in contact tracing by introducing iMSafe, a tracking bracelet for COVID-19 patients, and BruHealth, a contact tracing app.

These measures have guided the country to have only 150 total cases of COVID-19 patients and 3 deaths, as of December 2, 2020. The ministry has also made sure employees received their salaries even during the quarantine. Economic stimulus was provided to affected sectors such as tourism, hospitality, food, air transport and the pharmaceutical industry. This was extended to micro, small, and medium enterprises, and health care workers who were given a $400 allowance.

Singapore

Singapore has administered extensive testing, comprehensive contact tracing, and strict quarantine procedures, which was hailed as a model of best practices in containing the virus in the early months of the year. In March, it closed its international borders, following the travel ban from China in January, to break off the increase in its imported cases while the local transmission is low due to the thorough contact tracing in the country. However, the success in handling the pandemic was impeded when the second outbreak started. Its source were migrant worker dormitories that house roughly 200,000 men from the region. The workers had undergone strict restrictions of movement; nonetheless, the government covered their basic salaries, housing, and medical costs.

To further manage the transmission, the government introduced the “circuit breaker” measures to impose social distancing from April to June, which placed workers under a mandatory stay-at-home notice. The stringent lockdown measures have proven effective as by the end of June, schools re-opened and gatherings of five people were allowed again. As the restrictions are easing up and borders are gradually opening, the new infections are decreasing. So far, they have only tallied 29 deaths out of 58,218 total cases, as of December 2, 2020.

Singapore has been very generous in providing economic support to its constituents and industries directly affected by the pandemic. As early as February, they have released relief funding for businesses and tax relief for workers. They have also facilitated support measures such as pay outs to citizens, wage subsidies, and self-employed relief funds. In April, they have released the most aggressive economic stimulus package in Asia that amounted to about 20% of their GDP. This was followed by a series of economic stimulus packages thereafter.

Thailand

Having a healthcare system that ranks sixth in the world, Thailand has done fairly well in tackling the virus. It closed the borders in March, banning foreign visitors and imposing a partial lockdown. Thailand was placed under the state of emergency until September, granting the government broad powers to restrict domestic travels and social gatherings. The Thai New Year celebrations called Songkran were also cancelled. In addition, a nationwide curfew helped stop the further spread of the virus in April.

As a result, COVID-19 cases dropped in May and the restrictions started to loosen up. Public transport was reinstated and in-person classes in school resumed. Furthermore, foreign residents and work permit holders were able to fly back in August. The first stimulus package was introduced in March to support businesses in the form of low-interest loans, deduction in withholding tax, and VAT refunds. Several stimulus packages followed up shortly afterwards to support the farming and tourism industries, small and medium-sized enterprises, among others. On a different note, pro-democracy protests erupted during the pandemic, but the government responded by cracking them down and banning free assembly in the country. Currently, Thailand has 4,008 total COVID-19 cases, and 60 deaths, as of December 2, 2020.

Vietnam

Sharing its long borders with China, Vietnam only has had a total of 1,361 COVID-19 cases and 35 deaths (as of December 2, 2020) since the first case recorded in January. Vietnam is one of the few countries that have stepped up in handling the virus as they have demonstrated prompt and aggressive responses. The Vietnam government suspended all international flights to and from the country as soon as the first case was announced. Following China, they also imposed lockdown restrictions on some residential areas with known infected cases as early as February.

By the end of April, no new cases were reported, and international visitors began to enter the country again after a quarantine at centralized facilities for 14 days. Nevertheless, on July 25, the second wave of the pandemic began as the 417th case was confirmed with unknown origins of transmission in Da Nang city. The local government responded by implementing contact tracing and a selective lockdown, which included some hospitals at risk. However, due to high number of travelers in the area, positive cases in Vietnam doubled in mid-August. Making the situation worse, the first recorded COVID-19 death was announced on July 31, which has now increased to 35 deaths.

Later, the source of the transmission was found to be an undocumented migrant from China that had crossed the western border. This pushed the government to place tighter border controls by building 1,600 border checkpoints all throughout the country.

Regarding the financial response, in March the Vietnam government announced the first stimulus package to cover tax breaks, delayed tax payments, and government spending on infrastructure. The government also showed support to those who were let go from their jobs and low-income households, among others. Further subsidies included the national flag carrier Vietnam Airlines, as well as the Bank of Vietnam to refinance and offer low extensions.

Laos

Laos was the last country in Southeast Asia to announce its first COVID-19 case in March. The Laos government established the National Taskforce Committee for Covid-19 Prevention and Control in February, almost two months before the first positive case was confirmed in the country. The measures enforced included closing provincial borders, restricting public gatherings of more than ten people, imposing a lockdown, and making work from home mandatory for government officials. Currently, Laos has a total of 39 cases and zero deaths, as of December 4, 2020.

The country is accessible to international travelers except for countries with high numbers of coronavirus cases. In addition, travelers are subjected to quarantine for 14 days. In March, a first stimulus package was approved which is allocated to the pandemic prevention and control. The following month, micro- and small businesses were exempted from income tax for three months.

Geography and demographics may have played a critical role for Laos in being able to avoid a major outbreak. The country is not heavily populated, and it is surrounded by neighboring countries that have a relatively effective management of the virus.

Cambodia

Cambodia has the fewest COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia with zero deaths despite the initially slow response. This has brought doubts on the announced number of COVD-19 cases as some believe it to be undercounted. The Royal government’s key measures included quarantine, no celebrations, and economic stimulus. In April, the state of emergency was announced granting the government new powers in carrying out surveillance of telecommunications, as well as control of the press and social media. This has alarmed Human Rights expert as this law weakens the country’s democracy.

The government has reopened schools, places of worship, and businesses. It has also opened its borders to travelers from some Chinese cities and other countries in Southeast Asia. Currently it has 335 total cases and zero deaths, as of December 4, 2020.

Malaysia

The unexpected change of leadership has made the initial pandemic response of Malaysia relaxed and complicated. The infections remained low before the religious event attended by 16,000 people in February that has caused a spike in the total number of positive cases in the country. The government barred all gatherings and implemented the Movement Control Order to prevent further transmission. The sequence of economic stimulus measures was also announced to cover the economic impacts on various sectors and communities.

In June, Malaysia had eased out the lockdown and executed their Recovery Movement Order, which would allow all social, educational, religious, business, and economic activities to reopen. Further, the administration required all Malaysians to wear face mask in public.

However, the unrestricted campaigning in the Sabah state election brought large increases in COVID-19 cases. In response, the government imposed a partial lockdown in four districts of the state. Currently, the country has a total of 69,095 positive cases with 376 deaths, as of December 4, 2020.

Myanmar

Myanmar has a vulnerable public health system and is unequipped to respond for a pandemic. In addition, there is no safety net in the country that would protect the poor and other marginalized sectors in times of health and financial crisis. Its first reported case was confirmed in March and the number of infections remained low until August, when an outbreak occurred in the Rakhine State due to slow testing. Singapore, South Korea, and the United Nations donated thousands of testing kits to the country to fill this gap.

A lockdown and a ban of international flights were the first measures to face the emergency. An initial stimulus package was announced to assist the manufacturing and hospitality sectors, as well as small and medium enterprises. Currently, the total number of infections in the country is 95,018, and 2,018 deaths, as of December 4, 2020.

Philippines

The Philippines rank second in terms of the officially reported COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia. Currently, it has a total of 436,345 with 8,509 deaths, as of December 4, 2020. The cases of local transmission were reported more than a month after the first infection was confirmed in January. By April Luzon, the largest island in the country, was placed under the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and accounted for 91% of the 6,710 confirmed cases.

To combat the virus, the President was granted “special temporary power”, imposed lockdown on areas with known infections, and employed military and police to enforce lockdown measures. The country was later placed under the “state of calamity”, allowing the government to access the Calamity and Quick Response funds.

The Republic Act No. 11469 was signed to initiate that economic stimulus for affected families, sectors and workers by the pandemic.

However, the government was highly criticized for its response. National security seemed to be prioritized over public health and disaster management. Hence, some Filipinos perceived the approach as “militarizing the pandemic response”. The health sector was also challenged with shortage of medical professionals, resources, and facilities. Mass testing and contact tracing was also limited, initially.

The restrictions have been loosened up in June, and a new surge of infections overwhelmed the public health system. The government re-imposed lockdowns and testing has been increased. However, protests against job losses and food shortages have surfaced despite the government’s crack-down on dissent.

Indonesia

Indonesia, the most populous country in Southeast Asia, announced its first case on March 2 and it has recently reclaimed the top spot from the Philippines for the highest number of coronavirus cases in the region. Currently, the country has 563,680 confirmed cases and 17,479 deaths, as of December 4, 2020.

Measures include the establishment of a Task force to manage the response, large-scale social restrictions and travel bans. The government has also announced stimulus packages through a new regulation. They offered financial incentives to specific sectors directly affected by the pandemic. The government has also aided micro, small, and medium enterprise.

Indonesia has eased up restrictions in the country even though the number of infections has been rising. In June, the government allowed malls, offices, and schools to reopen. In September, COVID-19 cases spiked again, and restrictions were reinstated in Jakarta, one of the COVID-19 hotspots. It appears that the country is focusing more on reopening the economy than responding to the increasing coronavirus cases, even though, as per government and international sources, the economy will continue to shrink, regardless.