By mid-2022, governments worldwide had begun easing up on the severe Covid-19 restrictions and regulations imposed on their peoples and opening their countries to visitors. These moves were intended to ease the debilitating impact of Covid-related policies on the economies and social fabric of virtually all countries.
Most economies suffered recession, companies went bankrupt, supply chains were disrupted, major stock markets indices fell, unemployment rose, job vacancies dropped to an all-time low, and global tourism suffered downturns. Southeast Asian countries and economies were no exception to the pandemic impacts. The World Bank reported that all but one country (Vietnam) in the region suffered negative growth rates, with analysts seeing the region “being hit harder” economically than other parts of the globe.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) calculated that Covid-19 “pushed 4.7 million more people in Southeast Asia into extreme poverty and 9.3 million jobs disappeared.” The only businesses that prospered were the pharmaceutical corporations and other companies engaged in the manufacture and marketing of pandemic-related products.
In early 2021, however, the Covid numbers appeared to be receding and stabilizing. Nevertheless, the World Health Organization (WHO) advised that countries can loosen restrictions and lift lockdowns only if they have “high immunity rates, their health care systems are strong and the epidemiological trends are going in the right direction.”
But the easing may prove to be double-edged. While economies did recover in 2022, with the ADB estimating that Southeast Asia grew by 5.5% for the year, Covid infections and resulting deaths continued to rise. As Table One shows, total Southeast Asian Covid cases rose from 20 million to 36 million, or an average increase of 78 % in one year from Feb. 1, 2022, to Feb. 1, 2023.
Southeast Asian countries with the highest rate increases in infections were Brunei (407%), Vietnam (269%), Singapore (226%), Thailand (68%), Laos (53%) and Malaysia (50%). With the exception of Laos, these countries had been the region’s top performing economies for many years. Those with the lowest rate increases were Timor Leste (4%), Cambodia (7%), Myanmar (9%), and the Philippines (11%).
The high rate of increases may be attributed to the early lifting of restrictions for Brunei (August 2020), Malaysia (August 2021), Vietnam (March 2022), Singapore (April 2022), Thailand (February 2022), and Laos (January 2022). The Philippines, on the other hand, with only an 11% increase in cases, declared a full lifting of restrictions as late as January this year. Surprisingly, Indonesia eased restrictions early on in the latter half of 2021 but had a lower rate of increase in infections at 17%.
Deaths from the pandemic continued with the Southeast Asian fatality rate rising by 13 % in the one-year period between Feb. 1, 2022, and Feb 2, 2023, or from 323,401 to 365,541. The highest percentage increases in deaths were registered in Brunei (96%), Singapore (75%), and Thailand (46%). Countries with the lowest rate increases in deaths were Myanmar (0.7%), Cambodia (1%), Indonesia (9%) and Vietnam (8%).
It must be pointed out, however, that these figures may be underestimated or under-reported. This would be true for countries with underdeveloped health systems—i.e., inadequate mass testing and contact tracing capabilities—which could apply to most of Southeast Asia.
As far as vaccinations go, Southeast Asia’s record remains uneven (see Table 2). As of Feb. 1, 2023, the average percentage of persons fully vaccinated—i.e., two doses—of the region’s total population remains a low 68%. But five countries—Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam—had high vaccination rates ranging from 81% to 97% as of Feb. 1, 2023. These numbers fall within the threshold range to achieve “herd immunity,” which experts calculate to be from 80% to 90% vaccination for the Covid-19 virus at the height of the Delta variant infections.
For those with the required booster shots, the number drastically falls to a low 31% for Southeast Asia as a whole. Only Singapore, (with 84%) has achieved the numbers required for herd immunity. In terms of vaccination doses per 100 population, the Southeast Asian average of 210 means that, in general, each person has had only two vaccine doses, instead of the mandated four.
The Southeast Asian rate of vaccinations situate the region between the two poles that illustrate the disparities between rich and poor countries that is reflected on a global scale. An Oxford University team calculated that, at the extreme levels “as of Nov. 6, 2022, about 80% of people in high-income countries had received at least one vaccine dose compared to only 23% of those in low-income countries.” The inequalities become harsher in the case of those fully vaccinated (75% vs. 19%) and those with booster jabs (61% vs. 1.4%).
Access to affordable vaccines by poor and developing countries is crucial to strengthen efforts at curbing the pandemic. This need, however, is hamstrung by continuing refusals of developed countries and multinational pharmaceutical corporations to widen access to Covid-19 tests, vaccines, and treatment. In early December 2022 the United States, the European Union and wealthy Asian nations (Japan and South Korea) successfully delayed a decision on a proposal by developing member-countries to waive intellectual property rights held by multinationals on therapies and tests related to Covid-19.
On Jan. 30, 2023, the WHO declared that “Covid-19 continues to constitute a public health emergency of international concern, its highest form of alert,” and added that the viral disease “was likely in a ‘transition period’ that continues to need careful management to mitigate the potential negative consequences.”
This article is excerpted with revisions and additions from the author’s introduction “What holds for a post-pandemic Southeast Asia?” to a forthcoming publication, Towards a Peoples’ Alternative Regionalism in Southeast Asia: Volume II, published by the UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies, Program on Alternative Development (UP CIDS AltDev). —Ed.
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