ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

COVID-19 Third Wave Menaces Southeast Asian Nations

As the disease ravages India, several Southeast Asian nations are also weathering record outbreaks.

This article is free

The Diplomat has removed paywall restrictions on our coverage of the COVID–19 crisis.

COVID-19 Third Wave Menaces Southeast Asian Nations

A street vendor selling face masks in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Credit: Flickr/Asian Development Bank

Southeast Asia is in the midst of a resurgence of COVID-19, with alarming outbreaks now consuming the attention of several governments in the region. With much international attention absorbed by the harrowing situation in India, the past week has also marked a sorry milestone for several Southeast Asian nations, including several that successfully evaded the virus for most of 2020.

On Monday, the Philippines surpassed the grisly threshold of 1 million cases, becoming the 26th nation in the world to do so.

Infections spiked in the country last month, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration to impose a second lockdown in the Manila capital region. Despite the lockdown, the outbreak is showing little sign of tapering off. The Department of Health reported 8,929 new infections on Monday, bringing the country’s total to 1,006,428, including 16,853 deaths.

Both totals are the second highest in Southeast Asia after Indonesia, which continues to record an average of around 5,000 cases per day. Meanwhile, cases are once again on the rise in Malaysia, which recorded 2,776 new cases on Monday, bringing the nation’s cumulative total to 395,718, the third-highest in the region.

Most worryingly, the surge has also extended to countries in mainland Southeast Asia that had previously seemed curiously immune to the virus. On Monday, health authorities in Thailand announced 2,048 new infections and eight deaths, the fourth day in a row that the nations has seen more than 2,000 new cases. That brought the country’s totals to 57,508 cases and 148 fatalities.

The surge has pushed authorities to introduce fines of up to 20,000 baht ($640) for people who fail to wear face masks in public in 48 provinces, which took effect the same day.

Among the first to be fined was Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who was pictured on his official Facebook page chairing a meeting about COVID-19 vaccinations campaign without wearing a mask, attracting a wave of criticism online. He was later fined 6,000 baht ($190) fine for the misdemeanor.

Thailand is yet to impose a nationwide lockdown or curfew, though individual provinces have been allowed to issue their own restrictions, including mandatory quarantines for visitors from other provinces.

The Thai outbreak is believed to have contributed to the recent spike in cases in neighboring Laos, which is also undergoing its worst outbreak of the disease after recording very few cases for the first year of the pandemic. On Monday, Laos saw its biggest jump in COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, recording 113 positive cases, bringing the nationwide total to 436 cases and no deaths.

The mini-surge has prompted the Lao government to impose a two-week lockdown in the capital Vientiane, to shutter all bars, gyms, and entertainment venues, and to ban inter-provincial travel.

A similar situation pertains in Cambodia, another nation that rode out 2020 with relatively few cases of COVID-19. On Monday, the country recorded approximately 500 new positive cases, bringing its total to more than 10,500 infections. The country has also now recorded 79 fatalities from COVID-19.

The sudden spike has prompted the Cambodian government to impose a strict lockdown in the capital Phnom Penh, the nearby town of Takhmau, and the port city of Sihanoukville in the country’s southwest.

The authorities have declared some districts “red zones,” banning people from leaving their homes except for medical reasons. In a new order issued on late Friday, Phnom Penh City Hall said all markets are to be closed from Saturday until May 7. The country has also banned travel between provinces, and has closed down all schools, tourist attractions, sports facilities, museums, cinemas, and entertainment venues nationwide.

In lockdown “red zones,” residents claim they have said they have yet to receive any promised food or supplies from the government, despite the threat of being arrested if they leave their homes, and claim they are running out of supplies. A government Telegram group set up recently for people seeking emergency food aid, had reportedly received thousands of requests. Meanwhile, videos have emerged of police in Phnom Penh using batons and sticks to beat people caught breaking the lockdown.

Finally, there is the great unknown of Myanmar, where the political crisis kicked off by the military’s seizure of power at the start of February brought testing and vaccination efforts to a halt, making it unclear just how bad the country’s COVID-19 situation currently is.

After a year in which many Southeast Asian countries successfully contained COVID-19 at great cost, there is no immediate end in sight.

While most nations have kicked off their public vaccination campaigns, only Singapore remains in sight of widespread coverage, having vaccinated 23.32 percent of its population as of April 18. The next best nations was Cambodia, which has vaccinated 7.75 percent of its population as of Sunday, followed by Indonesia (4.29 percent), Malaysia (2.47 percent), Laos (1.72 percent), Thailand (1.39 percent), and Vietnam (0.22 percent).

These figures, taken from the handy Our World in Data tracker run by Oxford University, seem roughly to bear out the predictions made in January by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which predicted that many developing nations – including some in Southeast Asia – would struggle to achieve widespread vaccination coverage in the short term.

The EIU predicted that Singapore would achieve widespread vaccination coverage by early 2022, in line with the world’s wealthiest countries, while Vietnam is expected to achieve widespread vaccination coverage by the middle of the year and Thailand and Malaysia by late 2022.

For the rest of the region, including several of the nations that are currently undergoing sharp upward spikes in COVID-19, the prognosis is disquieting: Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Indonesia – which together make up the bulk of the region’s population – are all expected to remain unvaccinated for at least two years, and possibly longer, while all bets are off in crisis-hit Myanmar.

The current outbreaks and slow vaccination distribution raise a disconcerting prospect: that COVID-19 will claim more Southeast Asian victims in 2021 than it did in the pandemic year.