ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

The Coronavirus Crisis Is Laying Bare Southeast Asia’s Inequality Problem

COVID-19 exposes the weak social protection for the urban poor and vulnerable groups within ASEAN.

By Chen Chen Lee for
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The Coronavirus Crisis Is Laying Bare Southeast Asia’s Inequality Problem
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The global number of COVID-19 cases is now over 1.4 million, with no sign of abating. Within Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines lead the region in terms of deaths with 240 and 182 deaths respectively. While the number of COVID-19 cases in the region is small compared to that in the United States, Italy, or Spain, this may change drastically in the coming weeks as the pandemic sweeps across millions living in the slums. The World Health Organization has urged ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) governments to take “aggressive” actions to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

One thing is certain, the health crisis will exact devastating economic and social costs on the region in the months and years to come. Already, the coronavirus is exposing the weak social protection for the urban poor and vulnerable communities, and this will exacerbate the growing inequality within certain ASEAN countries.

In Thailand, the decision to proceed with construction work on high-rise apartments and office complexes, amid a partial lockdown in the country, is exposing hundreds of migrant construction workers to the disease, most of whom were not given masks or hand sanitizers or any information about the coronavirus. Singapore has also given the green light for construction work to continue. Compared to citizens who were handed free masks and hand sanitizers by the government, migrant laborers have to rely on civil society groups for these provisions. As it stands, there has been an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in three migrant worker dormitories. Fear of contracting the virus is growing within these groups, who live in largely unsanitary and crowded conditions, with little information about the coronavirus.

In the Philippines, the sudden announcement of a month-long lockdown for Metro Manila has caused panic and confusion for millions of residents, with some slum residents staging a protest to say that they had not received any food packs and other relief supplies from the government since the lockdown. The outlook is also grim for some 30 million Indonesians living in the slums, most of whom are left to fend for themselves, with little access to affordable healthcare and unemployment benefits.

Like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, the coronavirus pandemic is a looming crisis for the urban poor and vulnerable communities in Southeast Asia, such as migrant workers, ethnic minorities, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Women and girls also face heightened vulnerability issues as the burden of care work lands on them when their family members fall sick. Another at-risk group are informal workers, including part-time workers, who make up about 70 percent of ASEAN’s workforce. Many are daily wage earners and/or members of marginalized communities. Their livelihoods will be severely affected by pandemic response measures, as was the case with the lockdown of Metro Manila.

The 2013 ASEAN Declaration on Strengthening Social Protection states that “Everyone, especially those who are poor, at risk, persons with disabilities, older people, out-of-school youth, children, migrant workers, and other vulnerable groups, are entitled to have equitable access to social protection that is a basic human right and based on a rights-based/needs-based, lifecycle approach and covering essential services as needed.” It defines social protection as covering, but “not limited to, social welfare and development, social safety-nets, social insurance, social assistance, social services.” It also calls for governments to “allocate adequate financial resources for social protection.”

Yet the current state of social protection in the ASEAN region is diverse and patchy. Compared to western Europe and Latin America, which spend about 25 percent and 12.5 percent of their GDP, respectively, on social protection programs, ASEAN countries spend only about 6 percent. A report by the Asian Development Bank states that despite considerable GDP growth in recent decades, the majority of economies in Asia and the Pacific, in particular middle-income countries, have not correspondingly strengthened their systems of social protection.

Only four out of the 10 ASEAN countries (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand) have achieved (near) universal health coverage, with the remaining countries committed to achieving it in the near future. Even so, there exist large discrepancies between and within member states in terms of out-of-pocket health expenditure, availability and accessibility of health services, quality, and financial sustainability.

It is worth noting that social insurance (e.g. pensions, unemployment benefits, health insurance) is the dominant form of social protection in ASEAN, which benefits mainly salaried employees with stable jobs. This means that large segments of the labor force, especially those working in the informal sector or in small enterprises, are not covered by such forms of insurance. Further, social assistance systems (e.g. welfare assistance, cash or in-kind transfers, health assistance, disaster relief, disability benefits) are underdeveloped and are usually dwarfed by social insurance in terms of spending. Moderately poor people — and people living just above the poverty line — do not benefit from existing social protection schemes. Women, who tend to work in the informal labor market, enjoy less access to social insurance, social assistance, and labor market programs.

Within ASEAN the lack of access to quality and affordable services, as well as and/or high out-of-pocket health expenditure, can result in in low service utilization among the poor and vulnerable. In addition, physical barriers to health care access still afflict many ASEAN communities living in remote, difficult-to-access areas. Additional social conditions, such as poor urban planning and overpopulation in some cities, weak waste disposal services, and even traffic congestion impeding access to healthcare facilities, may all add to the caseload.

It is clear that there is ample room not only to scale up social protection expenditures in Southeast Asia, but also to broaden coverage of social protection systems.

Social protection played a crucial role during the global financial and economic crises of 1997 and 2008 in mitigating the adverse social and economic impacts. It is also an important tool in mitigating the impacts of shocks from natural disasters, which Southeast Asia frequently suffers from. Social protection is now widely perceived as an important strategy by many governments in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

While ASEAN governments will focus on slowing the spread of the virus, it is equally critical to use this opportunity to re-evaluate and strengthen social protection for its populations. The COVID-19 will not be the last of pandemic we see; it may not even be the worst. Crises such as this and disasters related to climate change and fuel volatility have revealed new vulnerabilities and the inability of ASEAN countries, communities, and households to absorb livelihood and other shocks.

Social protection needs to be at the center of policy agendas and debates. ASEAN governments need to rapidly invest in strengthening and extending social protection systems within their countries. At the same time efforts to expand affordable access to essential services such as health, education, water, and sanitation, especially for the poor and vulnerable, must continue with greater haste.

In doing so, ASEAN may have a chance to mitigate the losses and damage from COVID-19, which has already resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and will exact devastating social and economic costs in the months and years to come, with far greater impacts on the urban poor and vulnerable groups. ASEAN needs to walk the talk if it is serious about realizing an ASEAN Community that is people-centered and socially responsible.

Chen Chen Lee is a Senior Fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). Since 2015, she has led both the ASEAN and Sustainability teams, analyzing regional political and economic relations, as well as the haze, the resource sector and sustainable infrastructure.