As the historian Niall Ferguson pointed out in his recent Bloomberg column, pandemics have a way of unalterably changing not just political landscapes but also political language itself. The Bolshevik revolution in 1917, taking place amid the misnamed Spanish influenza of 1918-19, quickly became the “plague of Bolshevism,” according to the political Right in Europe. Later, the German National Socialists commingled hyperbole of a Bolshevik pandemic with a “racial tuberculosis.”
“Pandemics,” Ferguson wrote, “are associated with religious and political extremism. The fear of illness, mutual suspicion, quack theories, hypochondria, hyper-skepticism, and general mental dislocation caused by social distancing, lockdowns, and unemployment – taken together, these things tend to generate outlandish behavior.”
So far, the opposite rings true in Southeast Asia. Youth-led protestors occupied parts of Bangkok for much of the second half of 2020 but it’s hard to describe the pandemic as a key motivating factor. Malaysia’s already-divided opposition now appears even more divided. Cambodia’s banned opposition movement now awaits the final blow from Prime Minister Hun Sen. Some of the greatest thinkers and writers in Vietnam were jailed in 2020. Joshua Kurlantzick, writing in The Diplomat in October, noted that “South and Southeast Asia’s democratic progress has been in reverse since at least the early 2010s, and COVID-19 has sped up the reversal.”
In fact, the pandemic has largely entrenched the status quo. At Myanmar’s general election in November, the incumbent National League for Democracy retained its sizable vote-share, and then some. At this month’s National Congress of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith became the new party chief. At the Vietnamese Communist Party’s quinquennial National Congress, held next week, victory is also likely to fall to incumbent leaders. In Malaysia, any talk of a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has petered out. In Thailand, opposition to the military-cum-civilian government and to King Maha Vajiralongkorn has waned.
As to why this is, one answer may be that most Southeast Asian governments have handled the pandemic relatively well. More than that, Southeast Asia’s two main democracies, Indonesia and (tentatively speaking) the Philippines, were worst hit, whilst the regions’ most authoritarian states, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, have arguably done the best. As Kurlantzick noted in his aforementioned article, public support for democracy waned in Indonesia last year, “a drop probably due in part to public sentiment that Indonesia’s democratically elected leaders have handled the pandemic response poorly.” This narrative (a false one, mind) isn’t unique to Southeast Asia.
The second explanation is that the region’s already authoritarian governments have used the restrictions on movement and emergency powers, imposed in 2020, to stifle even more dissent and augment their repressive arsenal. Crackdowns on critics and pro-democracy activists were stepped up in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Greater restrictions on free speech were imposed in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Both arguments are valid, yet something more fundamental is afoot. Throughout 2020, Southeast Asians could look at events in Europe and North America and reflect that things were better where they were. But, more importantly, as a twenty-first century pandemic, even from the beginning of January 2020, when lockdowns and flight bans were imposed in parts of Southeast Asia, there was always faith that one day (and one day soon) there would be a vaccine against COVID-19. Indeed, it took around only 12 months for the first person to receive an inoculation. In a sense, then, the pandemic had to be endured, but people knew it wasn’t going to be endured for decades. Short-termism had its day.
Of course, it was the poorest who were more likely to suffer the financial implications of the pandemic – even if this was rationalized as a short-term dent before rapid post-pandemic recovery would rectify the problem. Yet it was the wealthy, those in the clustered cities and with the money to travel, who were often the ones infected. It was no coincidence that the second-wave of the pandemic started in Vietnam in July in Danang, after the government allowed urbanites to travel to the coastal city for weekend vacations. Put differently, the endemic inequality in Southeast Asia, the reason for so much dissent even in the most authoritarian of countries, was somewhat masked amid the pandemic. Not everyone suffered the same, but everyone suffered in similar ways.
That was the case in surviving the pandemic, but not when it comes to ending it. With vaccines available to most Southeast Asian states from next month, the question of who is vaccinated first is a matter of life or death. Who are the governments going to privilege with the first inoculations, which will come in small batches throughout the year? This query will naturally be followed by the appeal, “why not me?” Given that most Southeast Asian governments lack the funds to pay for vaccination of their entire population, will vaccines be sold privately? Most likely. And if that happens, we’ll see societies carved in two: the wealthy and privileged in their post-pandemic bubble and the poor and disadvantaged still at the coal-face of the pandemic.
Can we expect the region’s governments, especially those who have under-invested in their healthcare systems for decades and who have built bureaucracies on patronage rather than competency, to organize proper vaccination campaigns? What happens, come the end of 2021, when Southeast Asians will be greeted by news that the majority of European or Americans have already been vaccinated, yet only a minority of their own populations have been inoculated? Or when Singapore and Indonesia achieve far greater rates of vaccination than the rest of the region?
After all, the Economist Intelligence Unit doesn’t expect much of the region to be able to vaccinate at least 60 percent of their populations until the middle of 2022, perhaps even later. And most governments are aiming for around 70-80 percent of their populations to be vaccinated.
It’s rather easy to rally around the flag (or, rather, rally around the government, however autocratic) when everyone is “in it together,” as was the case in 2020. But such unity and patience will wane, envy will return, and anger will flare as vaccination campaigns are rolled out (especially if these campaigns become tainted by the region’s endemic plague of corruption, patronage, and vested interests.) Or, for that matter, when rising living standards aren’t revived as quickly as the headline GDP growth figures promise. When the vital tourism sectors continue to falter throughout 2021 and 2022, as many experts expect that they will. When debts deferred in 2020 are due in 2021. When state investment in public services is cut to free up funds to pay for the vaccines.
Throughout 2020 analysts were watching for signs of dissent, of the pandemic being the casus belli that stalls Southeast Asia’s steady march towards authoritarianism. But history tells us that people don’t rebel when times are at their worst, but rather when newfound optimism is dashed.