Warwick ASEAN Conference

How is Southeast Asia battling the Covid’19 pandemic?

Malaysia

In conjunction with the surge in COVID-19 cases after the 5th March, the Malaysian government announced a national Movement Control Order (MCO) starting from the 18th March, with only essential services operating. The measures taken to combat this pandemic are reflected from the Ministry of Health’s initiative to facilitate coronavirus screening at 48 hospitals, along with 26 referral hospitals to treat suspects and positive cases. This urgency had been propelled even further from the latest cases reported from a religious gathering attended by 16,000 people, including 14,500 Malaysians. The government is trying to track down more than 2000 Rohingya men who attended the event but have yet to come forward to be tested due to the ‘illegal status’ of their residency. Speaking of which, this brings rise to the immigration issue as not just a side-effect of the pandemic, but rather a muddle of human rights concerns as a culture of fear is cultivated. Immigration detention centres can be construed as an epicentre of poor hygiene due to the hundreds of foreign detainees squeezed and stacked in such a small area, provoking a higher risk of being infected. Many have posted online with the #MigranJugaManusia urging Malaysian authorities to refrain from raiding locked-down areas to arrest and detain migrants, as the cause for concern is not only to ensure safety for the people but fight xenophobic acts directed at them. A new cluster of those who tested positive was found in Bukit Jalil Immigration Detention Depot, where out of the 645 individuals, 35 tested positive, 4000 tested negative and the other 210 are awaiting results. Hitherto, the authorities have placed measures to contain the outbreak at the centre including disinfecting the site, ensuring social distancing has been practised between the people. The natural instinct of uncertainty emerges in the face of the crisis within an economic context.
Malaysia’s economic growth has slowed down to 4.3 % in 2019, the lowest since 2016 and below the average growth rate recorded since 2010. Bank Negara, the Central Bank of Malaysia announced this outbreak will affect the GDP in the first quarter of 2020. As a fiscal response to stake off economic repercussions, the Malaysian government has apportioned RM 20 billion to a third stimulus package aimed at small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which make up 98 percent of Malaysia’s economy. All in all, perhaps the knight in shining armour would be Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah. Praised and accredited internationally for his cool, calm and collected demeanour, his face strikes a familiarity to many Malaysians who watch the news by providing updates on the crisis nearly every day without fail. He addresses each of the questions with intellectual consideration and gives the latest statistics on infections as well recoveries from the virus. While these measures by the government show some level of effort, its circumvention may undermine the fairness of these policies.

Indonesia

President Joko Widodo has called for greater transparency as the country grapples with the coronavirus outbreak, ordering all coronavirus-related information in the country to be consolidated in a single system managed by the nation’s task force. To the mundane man, it may be conceived a futile attempt at political correctness, yet the issue runs deeper than what it appears. The first two cases of the virus, transpired to a staggering 21,745 total number of cases as of May 23, making Indonesia one of the highest among Asian nations. Adding to the bottleneck, the government now expects GDP growth to slow between 2.3 % and 2.4 % for the year, and even this is rendered as optimistic. This pandemic has precipitated and plummeted the rupiah, their local currency to drop to over 16,000 to the dollar. Jakarta’s stock market saw nearly a 20 per cent loss due to foreigners pulling almost US$360 million from the country’s equity funds this year. This calamitous picture sparks social unrest amongst workers and their households as the scale of the crisis climbs further. To combat this, the government has allocated a new tranche of fiscal measures bigger than the first one of 10.3 trillion rupiah aimed to help middle-income earners this time around.

Things aren’t looking too bleak in terms of the supply of machines to test the virus. Indonesia has been previously identified a high-risk country for tuberculosis by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and as a result for this pandemic, they would only need to change cartridges in the tuberculosis machines to accommodate the coronavirus, and the government has already ordered over 170,000 from the United States. Measures such as preparing isolation facilities in more than 100 hospitals and equipping themselves with tools that meet these international standards are in the works. To avert a fresh wave of infections during this time of Eid al-Fitr, the government is focusing on enforcing a ban on mudik and controlling the flow of people returning to cities.  Behind bars, another disaster strikes as this time has posed a greater challenge to groups of inmates. According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) data, last month the country’s prisons and detention centres held almost 270,000 inmates, more than double the total capacity. The Law and Human Rights Ministry’s Corrections Directorate General has since recorded a decrease in prison and juvenile inmates, the prison population dropped to a 75 per cent above the intended capacity from 106 percent above capacity. This story does not end here, as the government plans to release or grant parole to a total of 50,000 prisoners; the former inmates will be under the continued supervision of the Correctional Board.

Philippines

While it is with mere precaution spoken by Dr Duque, the Health Secretary of the Philippines when reports first broke about the first local case of a 62-year old man, suggesting it too premature to label it a ‘local transmission’, the implication of downplaying the severity plays out ironically in a stranger than fiction scenario. As of May 23, the country has now 13,597 cases and is placed in a ‘state of calamity’ for a period of six months. Stringent social distancing measures have been established with the common term called ‘enhanced community quarantine’ (ECQ); the entire Luzon island is in lockdown, affecting more than 50 million people, prohibiting them from going outside of their homes except to get basic necessities. Due to its proximity to China, the Philippines are at a greater risk of witnessing an increase of infections. The government announced earlier on the 2nd of February that all persons except Filipino citizens and permanent resident visa holders were temporarily barred from entering the country. For those who are returning to China and the procedure likewise in other countries, a mandatory 14-day quarantine was announced. Consequently, with more than 400 economic zones under lockdown, approximately 700 factories have been shut down displacing hundreds of workers. Just like most stories, whether fiction or not, there is a silver lining in this dark cloud of a pandemic. In order to cushion the economic impact from this outbreak, the Philippines government has proposed a stimulus package of approximately 200 billion pesos ($3.93bn) to protect the citizens and businesses from the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and announced that it will direct P200bn ($20bn) in emergency subsidies to 18 million poor households. Now, where would this money come from? Of course, it would be drawn from non-budgetary sources and interestingly enough, a tax proposition has arisen based on Netflix, Facebook ads and Lazada purchases amid the pandemic, raising US$593 million offsetting government spending to fight the pandemic.                                       
One can play a game of misnomer. Duque had been under fire in an earlier remark made that the Philippines had already been seeing a second wave of COVID-19. Lawmakers questioned how a second wave could be possible when the curve has yet to be flattened due to a lack of testing. Though the country’s testing capabilities have been enhanced from the onset of the outbreak, it leaves room to be improved. As of May 15, the government has tested just 0.19 percent of the population, according to the statistics of the Department of Health. This sparked a trend online with #MassTestingNow, where Filipinos took to social media demanding more tests. When asked about how the government could resolve these challenges, Dr. Yap highlighted the distribution efforts of the entire public sector and the generosity of several private partners who made their extraction kits available.  While there remains optimism for growth in the air, this does not steer us away from the fact that the health department had bought equipment to combat COVID-19 at higher prices, as questioned by Senator Panfilo Lacson. For instance, spending $32 on a swabbing kit when it can be bought from Chinese firms for $12 per kit. While there is a clear pattern of overpricing, this matter should be put aside for a later time. There is a long road to recovery for this country and as a matter of fact, for all of us.  The only hope is the absolute capacity in resilience in our governments, workers at the front line, and even those staying at home during this chaotic moment, with the anticipation that all of this will be history in the future.

Laos

Following the first report of COVID-19 cases outside the capital on the 24th of March, the Prime Minister of Laos imposed major reinforcement measures to limit transmission across the country as much as possible. This included border closures, the restriction of mass gatherings, the cancellation of celebratory events and a partial lockdown. Given the fragility of their healthcare system, the country has been receiving support from the Chinese anti-epidemic medical team, WHO and international partners who have provided the economy with medical supplies, funds and the new technology necessary to test for this new virus. Although Laos has fewer cases compared to other countries, the coronavirus still poses significant challenges. Tourism, manufacturing and state revenue collection are in decline with the country’s GDP predicted to rise by only 3.3% this year – the lowest rate for the economy in three and a half decades. In order to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic, the government issued income tax exemptions for certain businesses, MSMEs in particular, and employees on the 10th of April. Effective till June 2020, the tax relief measures will hopefully assist the cash flow of businesses and encourage firms to retain employees, hence downsizing unemployment issues.

Several financial priorities have been adjusted to minimize the scale of the disease on the economy. Local governments have been given direct responsibility to collect revenue from businesses with liquidity that are not directly affected by the coronavirus and local administrative organizations have been ordered to tighten its annual budget spending. The financing of investment projects has also been deferred to 2021 in order to allocate these funds to the ministries, public agencies at central and local levels that need them more. Moreover, with an estimation of a million workers returning to Lao PDR since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Government of Laos has responded by establishing seven quarantine centres within provinces where official border points are located. Under this system, it is of great importance that the Local Governments ensure that the quarantine centres under their surveillance function properly to prevent the spread of the virus. Given the fact that there are no new cases since the 14th of April, authorities have agreed to ease restrictions for industries to resume production with strict measures in case the second wave of infections occur. More focus will be given to preparing medium and long-term responses to stimulate the economy and boost the private sector as well.

Thailand

On the 13th of January, Thailand was the first country outside China to report a coronavirus infection when a woman arrived in Bangkok from Wuhan. Partly due to the government’s concerns regarding the country’s economic relationship with China, this resulted in some delay in the response to the pandemic. Nonetheless, Thailand closed its borders, banned foreign visitors and a partial curfew took place several weeks later. 

As of the 26th of March, the country has been under a state of emergency in which more measures took place to combat the pandemic. Preventive measures by the prime minister included screening procedures that have been placed at airports and hospitals admitting patients with COVID-19 symptoms. To limit transmission in light of the increasing number of cases, Songkran was cancelled, and the general public was educated on personal hygiene practices in early February and so forth. With the coronavirus outbreak having a widespread influence on all industries with issues around supply chain, workforce and cash flow, the Thai cabinet approved 3 phases of stimulus packages to lessen the impact. In March, the first two stimulus packages were put into place with a value of THB 400 billion and THB 117 billion respectively. The purpose of these phases was to increase liquidity for businesses and individuals as well as providing tax relief and cash handouts. This is crucial at this time of the ongoing pandemic since the business sector is experiencing significant slowdowns in growth. Lastly, an injection of THB 1.9 trillion baht was approved on the 7th of April to further boost the economy, support businesses and their workforce. Nonetheless, to see whether this strategy can truly be effective in the long run, the issues regarding the government’s ability to afford this huge debt and the effect on the economy’s stability after this must be taken into consideration. Looking towards the future of Thailand’s economy, there are many challenges towards the path to recovery. From decreasing exports in the previous year, the timing could not have been worse with the coronavirus having hit Thailand straight after its economic growth had slowed down to 2.4% in the third quarter of 2019. The tourism industry, a crucial sector for the country, is estimated to face a loss of THB 50 billion due to health concerns and is therefore unlikely to help offset the previous slowdown in growth caused by the manufacturing sector. However, with new cases being in the low single digits for several weeks, restrictions under the emergency decree have been eased and planned out into four phases. The first stage of easing began on the 3rd of May in which retail, wholesale and recreational businesses were allowed to reopen with disease-control measures. Further easing is accessed every 14 days and if there is a significant increase in cases, the plan will be revoked.

Cambodia

The government of Cambodia has been criticized for downplaying the pandemic ever since reports of COVID-19 first emerged from China. Despite the country confirming its first case on the 28th of January, his public relations stunts, notably when he refused to cease flights between Cambodia and China, led to accusations that his top concern was to avoid jeopardizing Cambodia’s ties with China. It was not until the 7th of March that the Health Ministry announced the first Cambodian diagnosed with the coronavirus, and even later that the government warranted serious containment measures. Following the implementation of travel restrictions, and the cancellation of the Khmer New Year holiday and schools, the Ministry of Finance also announced that $400 million will be spent through the purchase of relevant medical equipment. Nonetheless, with businesses urged to remain open, coupled with the country’s delayed response, this fueled further accusations that the government was prioritizing the country’s commercial and political interest over public health[4].

The government stepped up his response to the coronavirus later by declaring a state of emergency on the 10th of April. This gave him the authority to monitor surveillance, media control, and impose restrictions on freedom of assembly. Due to the bill containing overly vague provisions with unlimited duration, this act has evoked considerable concern. Many are worried that the government is using this pandemic to undertake further repressive measures that essentially erode human rights guaranteed by the Cambodian constitution and the international human rights law. Regulations have been issued to support businesses affected by the coronavirus. Thus far, the measures include tax breaks and holidays for key industries of the country. Tourism, a growing sector in the economy, is now unlikely to meet its target of two million Chinese visitors this year. To combat this significant hit, tax exemptions have been applied to businesses in several cities. As business activity slows in Cambodia along with the rest of the world, suspended employees can also receive monthly allowances from the government. Meanwhile in healthcare, although more economic resources have been allocated to combat COVID-19 with donations of medical equipment from Japan and China, Cambodia’s ability to effectively do so may be limited due to two main issues. Firstly, there have been low levels of government spending in this sector compared to other countries. As the pandemic created a strain on the national budget, money spent on healthcare for this year will be further hampered. Secondly, the country currently lacks medical facilities and resources. Although the country currently has relatively low levels of active cases, the fact that it has only 1.4 health workers per 1,000 people is alarming. If there is another outbreak, Cambodia could potentially face huge consequences. Nevertheless, the situation appears to be improving as there have not been any COVID-19 deaths with almost no increase in infections. In light of this, Cambodia has lifted a ban on the entry of visitors from Iran, Italy, Germany, Spain, France, and the US on the 20th of May.

Myanmar

The close borders Myanmar shares with China coupled with the regular travelling of migrant workers between both countries made it inevitable for there to be an outbreak of Covid’19 within Myanmar. However, it wasn’t until the 23rd of March when Myanmar reported its first 2 cases in two people who had travelled to the UK and the US. This delay of Covid’19 cases being reported was largely due to the sheer lack of testing within the country, coupled with Myanmar’s government refusal to acknowledge the severity of this virus.  After the 2 confirmed cases of Covid’19, Myanmar’s government began to impose additional measures that are aimed at curbing the spread of Covid’19, many nations, however, still do not believe these to be sufficient. Yangon -the largest city in Myanmar- imposed a lockdown during the Thingyan celebrations from the 10th to the 19th of April, Myanmar’s government also urged citizens to stay at home. This however, did not stop many workers from attempting to leave the cities and return back to their hometowns, this non-compliance, therefore, resulted in the quadrupling of cases. Myanmar now has 2 national level Covid’19 response committees, one led by the civilian government and one with significant military representation. Whilst quarantine centres have been established in areas with returning migrant workers, they are often run by the local population who have received little to no support from the government. 

Myanmar’s government has been heavily criticised for their severely delayed response towards this pandemic, they therefore hoped that the US$50million credit Myanmar had secured from the World Bank for their Covid’19 emergency response project would help to increase hospital preparedness and surge capacity. Whilst this demonstrates a major improvement from the government’s laissez-faire approach towards the Covid’19 situation, their actions still show a glaring double standard with no indication of inclusivity. Whilst the government is distributing food aid in Yangon to cope with the economic effects of the lockdown, the Myanmar military continues to wage war in ethnic minority states -Karen, Shan, Rakhine and Shin states- despite both domestic and international calls for a ceasefire. This has left such states riddled with internet blackouts and media shutdowns, cutting civilians off from vital information regarding the Covid’19 pandemic. 
The reported Covid’19 cases in Myanmar currently stand at 199 with 6 deaths  however, it is widely speculated that these cases are severely underreported. Ultimately, Myanmar’s response to the Covid’19 pandemic has been a mixture of both denial and fervent nationalism, making the outbreak of a humanitarian crisis inevitable.

Vietnam

Being a densely populated neighbour of China, an outbreak of Covid’19 within Vietnam was thought by many to be inevitable. Vietnam however, was spared from such an outbreak. During the Tet New Year celebrations at the end of January, Vietnam’s government said it would be “declaring war” on the coronavirus; this was despite the fact that the outbreak was still confined to China. The war rhetoric Vietnam applied in its fight against Covid’19 resonated amongst the Vietnamese, who were especially proud of their ability to stand together in a crisis and endure hardship. Vietnam’s comprehensive action against the pandemic effectively allowed them to ‘win the war’ against Covid’19, life in Vietnam is now slowly returning back to normal.

Rigorous quarantine policies coupled with close surveillance of Vietnam’s population were essential in enabling Vietnam to avoid an outbreak of Covid’19. These measures were also implemented much earlier in the course of the pandemic compared to many other countries. On the 12th of February, Vietnam had put an entire town of 10,000 people under quarantine for 3 weeks. This was despite there being only 10 reported cases within the country. Since February, Vietnam’s government has also mandated the compulsory use of face masks in crowded places, such as airports, supermarkets, and public transport. Vietnam then implemented strict social distancing guidelines nationwide from the 1st of April in order to curb this virus, these measures included self-isolation and restricting people from leaving their houses unless it is for medicinal or food purposes. Rather than depending on medicine and technology to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, Vietnam’s already robust state security system had applied a widespread system of public surveillance. This close surveillance largely kept citizens from evading self-isolation and social distancing regulations. The biggest downside with this method however, is that those found to be infected with Covid’19 are ostracised both within their community and on social media. 

Vietnam’s reported Covid’19 cases now stand at 288 with 0 deaths, social distancing measures are being relaxed in a phased manner. Taxi’s, buses, Grab services and inter-provincial transport have now resumed, schools across the country are now reopening for classes; Vietnam’s prime minister has even allowed for all non essential services to resume. The one thing clear is that Vietnam has been successful in their fight against Covid’19.

Brunei

The first Covid’19 cases were detected in Brunei on the 9th of March when a 53 year old man tested positive for the virus. Not long after, on the 15th of March, Brunei announced that all its citizens were barred from leaving the country due to the Covid’19 outbreak. The immediate action Brunei’s government has taken in order to prevent the spread of Covid’19 has allowed them to contain the virus, thereby preventing it from spiraling out of control.

 Brunei, like most countries, has taken the necessary steps in order to prevent an uncontrollable outbreak of the deadly virus. This includes travel bans, restrictions on public gatherings, and asking most people to work from home. Mosques and other places of worship have also been closed, shopkeepers were also asked to practice social distancing so as to prevent the transmission of Covid’19. Recovered patients are also required to undergo another round of tests 3 weeks after they have been discharged, this is to prevent the virus from spreading through relapsed patients. These restrictions however, have been complemented by measures to ease any hardships households and businesses could potentially be facing. The first step includes the opening of the Temburong bridge, which provides an alternate route for people living in the remote Temburong district to the capital -Bandar Seri Bagawan. Previously, Temburong residents had to undertake a 2 hour drive via Malaysia and pass through 4 immigration checks. This measure ensures that commuting to the capital is a lot easier and that the supply of essential goods to Temburong can be carried out with little to no disruptions. The Covid’19 will undoubtedly have severe economic impacts for households and businesses alike; knowing this, Brunei’s government has also implemented numerous measures to lessen this financial burden.  Private sector workers who have been employed for more than a month, have been allowed to take paid sick leave; this is part of Brunei’s effort to lessen the spread of Covid’19. The government has also waived the rent of small and medium shops, whilst announcing that they would be covering 25% of all private sector wages for 3 months. Such measures will be extremely effective in lessening the burden faced by many during this pandemic, and will no doubt have an extremely positive impact on the mental wellbeing of Brunei’s citizens. 
Brunei now has 141 reported cases of Covid’19 and 1 death, they have been one of the more successful nations within South East Asia in curbing the spread of this pandemic.

Singapore

When the world was first made aware of the Covid’19 pandemic, Singapore had immediately begun to prepare. They were thus placed in an extremely strong position when the World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) declared Covid’19 to be a public health emergency in January. By the end of January, all of Singapore’s public hospitals were already equipped with the necessary equipment required to carry out Covid’19 testing. Singapore was well prepared for this pandemic before it had even begun, this is largely due to the experience they had dealing with the SARS outbreak of 2002 – 2003. In the years since that outbreak, Singapore, realising they did not have the capacity to deal with another similar outbreak began to build more isolation hospitals coupled with negative pressure rooms. 

The first Covid’19 case was reported on the 23rd of January; the early cases were primarily imported until local transmission began. Despite receiving their first confirmed case of Covid’19 so early in the year, Singapore still had yet to go into lockdown in March.  At the beginning of March, Singapore’s response to Covid’19 was held up by many around the world as a model due to its very low infection rates and zero deaths. They have contact tracing teams who identify all the contacts of an infected person and ring them up. Those who have been in contact with the infected individual but have yet to display symptoms will be put in-home quarantine. A couple of times during the day, they will then receive a message requesting them to click the attached link so to show the location of the phone. The government has also deployed officers to knock on the doors of those who are quarantining at home to ensure that they really are at home. 

Since April however, Singapore began to face a surge of infections linked to industrial worksites and tightly packed worker dormitories. Approximately 300,000 low wage workers, mostly from other parts of Southeast Asia, work in the construction and maintenance structures within Singapore. All of them live in huge dormitory complexes on the outskirts of the cities; social distancing is impossible in these dormitories, they house up to 20 men per room, with a shared kitchen, toilet and other facilities. This close proximity between the workers makes it very easy for the virus to spread rapidly amongst them. In order to reduce the chances of infection, thousands of workers have been moved to alternate accommodations such as vacant apartment blocks, whilst several blocks have also been quarantined. 
This tiny city state now has the highest number of cases in Southeast Asia, though their death rate is still extremely low. Singapore currently has 29,812 cases and 23 deaths. Restrictions including the closures of businesses and schools, and asking people to stay at home have now been extended to the 1st of June.

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