ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

The Regional Absence in Mainland Southeast Asia’s COVID-19 Strategy

Despite their local vaccination efforts, the nations of the region won’t be safe until the entire region achieves herd immunity.

The Regional Absence in Mainland Southeast Asia’s COVID-19 Strategy

People line up for COVID-19 inoculations at a vaccination center in Chiang Mai, Thailand, June 28, 2021.

Credit: Depositphotos

On July 6, it was reported that Thai authorities had detained and then returned 249 Cambodians for illegally entering Thailand over just a two-day period, of which 39 had tested positive for COVID-19. A few days before, as Lao authorities announced another two-week extension of lockdown measures, the deputy head of the Prime Minister’s Office, Thipphakone Chanthavongsa, noted that the main problem facing the country was imported cases. On July 6, Lao authorities recorded 56 new cases of COVID-19: 54 imported and just two locally transmitted.

Mainland Southeast Asia is only going to be able to return to something resembling pre-pandemic normalcy once the entire region is amply vaccinated. That’s not just an economic argument, though it’s obvious that intra-region exports will remain depressed by regional disparities in inoculation. Cambodian exporters to Thailand, for instance, are still going to suffer even if Cambodia can hypothetically vaccinate 100 percent of its population and return to normalcy this year but Thailand has to maintain restrictions if it only achieves 30 percent.

But on a deeper level comes the question of cooperation between the mainland Southeast Asian states, of which there appears to be almost nil in terms of vaccination.

As was abundantly clear before the COVID-19 pandemic began, mainland Southeast Asian states aren’t able to properly monitor their borders, which explains both the widespread undocumented migration between countries, as well as illegal trafficking of goods (and people). The Thai-Cambodia border is 817 kilometers long, the majority of it unsupervised. The Thai-Lao border runs for 1,845 kilometers. Put simply, the region’s borders are porous.

On the one hand, the economic collapse across the region since early 2020 has motivated a push-and-pull for migrants. For some, returning back to their homes amid job losses and rising cost of living makes sense, since they are at least guaranteed food and security. For others, the same reasons compel them to head across the borders in search of work, the reason for the apparent increase in illegal migration from Cambodia to Thailand in recent months. As has been abundantly documented, migrants often play a major role in localized COVID-19 outbreaks.

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However, there’s another issue that is far less easy to analyze. While the leaders of developing countries have lambasted the wealthier West for hoarding vaccines, the reality is that vaccination campaigns in Southeast Asia are deeply unequal. Cambodia has so far fully vaccinated 19.9 percent of its population, while Laos, the poorest of the ASEAN states, has fully vaccinated 8.2 percent. Yet Thailand (with an economy almost 20 times the size of Cambodia’s and bigger still than Laos’) has achieved just 4.3 percent and Vietnam only 0.2 percent. (In part, this is skewed by the much smaller populations of Cambodia and Laos.)

There’s no data on it yet, but I am reliably informed that not inconsequential numbers of Cambodian and Lao migrant workers are seeking to return home to get vaccinated (because of the relative success of their home countries’ vaccination programs compared to Thailand and Vietnam’s), in the course of which they end up bringing the virus with them.

One big question is what is meant by “percentage of population” vaccinated. It isn’t abundantly clear if for Cambodia, for instance, that means all people currently living in Cambodia (nationals and foreign residents) or all people who could reasonably assume to have access to vaccines. In other words, does it include the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians working abroad, legally or illegally?

In May, Bangkok said that it would extend vaccination to all residents and legal migrants, but that is unlikely to include all illegal migrants, of which there may be millions, mostly from Cambodia and Laos. Obviously, illegal migrants aren’t registered with Thailand’s Social Security Office. There is also the issue of the family members of legal immigrants, who are not always registered with the authorities.

All this, and I don’t even have the space to consider the risk of the Myanmar crisis sparking an exodus of Burmese into Thailand.

International groups and local industry bodies have been rightfully warning about these issues for months, stressing that vaccination campaigns must factor in migrants. “The effects [of the pandemic] on migrants have been devastating,” Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, a U.N. undersecretary general, said at a recent conference. “They must be included in vaccination programs because… we are only safe when everyone is safe.”

And the big ‘if’ in all of this is variants. It is widely assumed that the gigantic spike in case numbers in mainland Southeast Asia since April is a result of the far more infectious Delta variant. One recent study from India (which I am only mentioning, not stating as fact) suggests that the Delta variant is almost eight times less sensitive to antibodies generated by vaccines than earlier variants. There is no telling how many more variants will pop up. We now have the Kappa variant. Are we going to get to Omega?

If there is to be a return to something like normalcy, meaning an end to the targeted lockdowns, school closures, and business inactivity, the reality of mainland Southeast Asia’s porous borders means that herd immunity in one country is not as important as herd immunity for the entire region. For instance, if Thailand’s “Sandbox” scheme of opening tourism destinations goes badly wrong (and we’ve already seen one visitor test positive), then the repercussions will also be felt in Laos and Cambodia.

And even if Cambodia or Laos could hypothetically vaccinate 100 percent of their populations by the end of 2021, they won’t be able to remove all restrictions and lockdowns until Vietnam and Thailand achieve herd immunity, too. If 100 percent of all Cambodian residents were vaccinated but only 20 percent of Thais, cross-border travel could continue to bring in new infections and possible variants to Cambodia, meaning its national vaccination percentage loses significance.

If one grants my argument, then it ought to be considered why there seems to be almost zero cooperation between the regional states in vaccine delivery. “We need collective action towards a global vaccination campaign, and prevent vaccine nationalism and politicization,” Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha commented recently.

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Yet each Southeast Asian state has engaged in a Darwinian struggle to receive as many vaccines for themselves as possible, either through spending heavily, agreeing to exclusive distribution, or through tapping geopolitical allies, the reason why Cambodia and Laos have received large numbers of vaccines from China and why Vietnam is one of the first to receive America’s donated vaccines. ASEAN, that lauded body of multilateralism, didn’t even raise a squeak to suggest that the region as a whole should have a common vaccination policy.

As they say, the whole should be greater than the sum of the parts.