COVID-19 Continues to Batter the Philippines, Indonesia

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ASEAN Beat | Economy | Southeast Asia

COVID-19 Continues to Batter the Philippines, Indonesia

The two governments are betting that vaccines will offer an escape route from the economic and public health crisis, but many obstacles remain.

COVID-19 Continues to Batter the Philippines, Indonesia

Health workers at the Jose B. Lingad Memorial Regional Hospital in San Fernando City, Philippines, May 9, 2020.

Credit: Flickr/Asian Development Bank

Late January brought the news that the Philippine economy had contracted by nearly a tenth in 2020, as the aftereffects of COVID-19 began to force themselves upon the government of President Rodrigo Duterte. According to figures released by the Philippine Statistical Authority, full-year GDP growth was minus 9.5 percent, the worst economic contraction on record.

The glimmer of good news was that the slump eased off in the last quarter of the year, shrinking 8.3 percent from a year earlier, largely due to higher government spending, following a 11.4 percent contraction in the third quarter. But the yearly recession is the country’s worst in nearly three decades, and suggests that the economic aftereffect of COVID-19 could drag on through the coming year. As of February 2, the Philippines had recorded a total of 528,853 confirmed coronavirus infections and 10,874 deaths from the disease.

The only nation that has fared worse is Indonesia, which late last month passed 1 million confirmed positive cases, becoming the 19th country to reach the melancholy milestone, and the first in Southeast Asia.

The economic effects of COVID-19 on Indonesia have been less severe than in the Philippines – the World Bank projects the country’s GDP to contract by just 2.2 percent in 2020 – but its public health impacts have been markedly worse. Where Manila has mostly managed to prevent the uptick in cases, last month was the most deadly for COVID-19 in Indonesia.

In fact, it’s probably much worse. Given the fact that Indonesia’s testing rate is one of the lowest in the world among those countries most affected by COVID-19, the real case load could be up to 10 times higher, according to some experts. Indonesia’s death toll from COVID-19 (30,277 as of February 1) is more than that of all other Southeast Asian countries combined.

Indonesia and the Philippines share a number of common aspects. The two nations are the two most populous in Southeast Asia, with heaving capital megacities and densely populated regions.

Both have been led through the pandemic by small-town mayors that rose to sudden national prominence, promising a break from what in the Philippines are often known as trapos – “traditional politicians.” Their governments’ response to the pandemic, like those of populist leaders the world over, has been poor. Both initially dismissed the dangers of the disease, while members of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s cabinet hawked a range of quack cures for the coronavirus, from prayer to herbal mangosteen juice. In February 2020, President Duterte even criticized members of the public for being “hysterical” about COVID-19.

Finally, like other nations that have failed to control COVID-19, both countries have bet heavily on vaccines as a means of defeating the virus. Jokowi last month received his second of two required doses of the CoronaVac vaccine, which was developed by the Chinese firm Sinovac Biotech. This took place two weeks since his first jab, which launched Indonesia’s mass vaccination program, while Duterte plans to do the same sometime in February.

Yet both nations have been slow in rolling out vaccinations. Last week, the Economist Intelligence Unit predicted that Indonesia and the Philippines could take at least two years to reach widespread vaccination rates, and possibly longer. It put this down to the difficulty in procuring enough vaccines in a context of intense global demand, the costs necessary to transport and distribute them in a timely manner, and the additional expenditures needed to pay healthcare workers to administer the vaccines.

Sure enough, Indonesia’s vaccination program, which aims to vaccinate 180 million people by early 2022 (and 800,000 people per day), is running behind schedule, largely due to logistical problems. Meanwhile, the Philippines’ progress remains stuck in a mire of problems. In general, the country has lagged behind its neighbors in securing vaccines, with which the government hopes to inoculate some 70 million people, or two-thirds of the population, before the end of 2021.

This has come amid reports of a flourishing vaccine black market in COVID-19 vaccines, and reports that Filipino bodyguards  had already been inoculated with an unauthorized vaccine smuggled from China. Duterte’s government, like Jokowi’s in Indonesia, has also invested heavily in the Chinese-developed CoronaVac vaccine, despite lingering questions surrounding its efficacy. For both nations, the coming months will say a lot about whether they are able to defeat COVID-19, or whether it ends up defeating them.