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It would be an understatement to describe 2020 as a challenging year. Coronavirus swept the globe and over 1.6 million people have died from the disease.
Even in Southeast Asia, which has fared comparatively well in minimizing deaths, economies have either ground to a halt or deeply contracted due to the region’s reliance on exports and tourism.
Governments throughout the region have employed experimental and, at times, innovative approaches to combatting the pandemic, with mixed results. In this year-end update, we examine what worked and what didn’t in Southeast Asia’s battle against the coronavirus.
Vietnam has been the region’s biggest success story
Despite limited resources and a bustling border with China, Vietnam initially managed to contain the pandemic by halting travel with China early, deploying epidemic control teams to implement a massive test-and-trace regime, and committing to data transparency.
Life had returned to normal for most Vietnamese until a second wave spread from the city of Danang at the end of July. But Hanoi’s response was swift, getting the virus back under control by early September, and the government has not been shy to reimpose restrictions where needed since then.
Vietnam’s economy has been surprisingly resilient; it is the only Southeast Asian nation still projected to have positive economic growth this year. But that growth will be limited to 1.6 percent. It will be the first time Vietnam’s GDP growth has dipped below 5 percent in at least 20 years.
Brunei has successfully contained the spread of Covid-19 and has begun opening travel corridors with other countries in Southeast Asia. Schools and places of worship have been open since July, while businesses and restaurants have reopened gradually.
Brunei’s success can be attributed to its quick and drastic restrictions on travel, extensive testing, and strict quarantine rules. The small country may also have benefited from only sharing borders with Malaysia, which until recently, contained the virus reasonably well.
Cambodia has reported few cases and zero deaths
Despite weak health infrastructure and an initially slow response. Cambodia’s location may have played a role in its success, as the country is surrounded by Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, all of which have controlled the virus relatively well. In the latter half of the year, the government proceeded with plans to reopen the economy, having already reopened places of worship, schools, and many businesses and resumed some flights.
However, after an outbreak of imported cases in late November and the country’s first case of community spread in December, Cambodia has reimposed some travel and gathering restrictions. Prime Minister Hun Sen as of late has turned his attention to securing sufficient vaccine doses and has promised that they would be free to the public.
Laos, the most rural country in Southeast Asia, was also the last to report its first Covid-19 infection. Despite the country’s almost non-existent health care system, it has avoided a major outbreak. Geography and demographics may be important factors here: Laos is relatively sparsely populated and surrounded by neighbors which have managed to contain the virus relatively well. In an effort to boost its economy, Laos has already resumed travel to several countries in Southeast Asia and encouraged domestic tourism.
Timor-Leste, despite initial fears that its weak health infrastructure would not be able to handle an outbreak of Covid-19, has effectively contained the virus since March. After announcing a state of emergency, the government heavily restricted travel to and from Timor-Leste and strictly enforced health guidelines for all travelers and residents.
The Philippines is second only to Indonesia for the most officially reported cases in Southeast Asia. Since the government lifted most restrictions in June, a new surge in cases has overwhelmed the public health system and further damaged the economy.
Quarantines have since been reintroduced throughout the country and testing has steadily increased, but the government has yet to bring the virus under control. Protests against job losses and food shortages have cropped up across the country even as the government cracks down on dissent.
The country’s leadership has signaled that it will wait for a vaccine to spur an economic turnaround rather than borrow more funds to aid recovery efforts.
Indonesia has spent most of the pandemic in the top spot for coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia. While the Indonesian central government has continued to ease gathering and travel restrictions despite rapidly increasing case numbers and deaths, local leaders have begun to reimpose lockdowns, most notably in Jakarta.
The country seems to be giving up on flattening the curve in favor of reopening the economy. But official government and international sources have confirmed that the economy is continuing to contract, regardless. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo recently announced that all Covid-19 vaccines will be free for Indonesians and has been proactive in securing doses. However, storage and distribution will be difficult as Indonesia faces serious challenges with bureaucracy, corruption, refrigeration, infrastructure, and geography.
Strong Start, Weak Finish
Myanmar maintained some of the region’s lowest case counts until August
But the rate of infections accelerated quickly over the past several months, first due to an outbreak in Rakhine state and then the holding of national elections on November 8.
The country’s underdeveloped healthcare system has impeded Myanmar’s ability to cope as new case counts have stayed above 1,000 per day. The government’s distribution of cash assistance has also come under criticism over allegations that most aid has gone to well-connected business owners.
Malaysia’s initial response to the outbreak was nonchalant and complicated by an abrupt change in government when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned and Muhyiddin Yassin rose to power on a razor-thin majority coalition.
Malaysia saw few cases in the early months but soon after Muhyiddin took office, the government was forced to impose nationwide restrictions on public movement in mid-March. Those were gradually relaxed as the virus was brought under control.
But unrestricted campaigning in September’s Sabah state election caused Malaysia’s largest spike in coronavirus cases to date, which the government has yet to effectively contain. Prime Minister Muhyiddin overcame a critical leadership test in December when lawmakers approved his 2021 budget after having previously failed to secure royal permission for a state of emergency that would have allowed him to pass the budget without parliamentary approval.
Weak Start and Strong Finish
Thailand confirmed its first case of Covid-19 on January 13, becoming the first country outside of China to do so. Numbers remained low until March, when the country began to see widespread community spread. Since then, Thailand has done relatively well in combating the coronavirus crisis with a quick lockdown, an effective contact tracing rollout, an already strong healthcare system, and a wide embrace of mask-wearing.
However, Thailand is projected to suffer the worst economic consequences in the region due to its overwhelming dependence on tourism and exports. This has contributed to pro-democracy protests in Bangkok, which have flouted an emergency order by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha banning free assembly.
The government has cracked down on demonstrations, citing the increased risk of spreading Covid-19. But as case counts have remained low throughout the months-long protest movement, the government appears to be more concerned with halting the calls for reform than with public health.
Singapore initially managed to contain the virus through widespread testing, comprehensive contact tracing, and mandatory, well-enforced quarantines.
But then the city-state suffered a sharp increase in cases linked to foreign workers’ dormitories. It has since flattened the curve with the help of an innovative contact tracing mobile app and token system called TraceTogether, although migrant workers continue to disproportionately suffer from infections.
Gathering restrictions have been loosened cautiously as Singapore has prepared for Phase 3 of its reopening at the end of the year. Meanwhile, the government has actively pursued “green lane” and travel corridor reopenings with its neighbors for essential and business travel, although a recent global spike in cases has delayed implementation.
It is important to note that even the worst outbreaks in Southeast Asia pale in comparison to those in the United States, India, and much of Europe and South America. As we reflect on this year in Covid-19, Southeast Asia has been, on the whole, remarkably innovative and resilient when it comes to public health. Also important, however, is that the region’s economy has been devastated by the pandemic.
Exports have fallen with global demand, and tourism has dried up as travel restrictions largely remain in place. While economists predict a bounceback year in 2021, serious damage has been done and it is unclear if the region will be able to quickly regain its robust pre-pandemic growth. Covid-19 has changed Southeast Asia, and its effects will be felt for years to come.
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