COVID-19 is dominating news headlines and social media feeds globally. Each week the Griffith Asia Institute explores aspects of South East Asia’s COVID-19 response to provide regular snapshots on how countries in the region are experiencing and reacting to the pandemic.
ASEAN states were busily engaged in digital diplomacy last week. On Tuesday, a special ASEAN online summit was convened to thrash out details of the regional COVID-19 Response Fund. Said to be an initiative put forward by Thailand, the Fund will support the procurement of much needed medical supplies and finance preventative measures. However, full funding details remain vague at present. ASEAN+3 (China, Japan, South Korea) also convened later that same day to discuss the global public health crisis.
The pandemic has seen South East Asian states pursue a less than uniform approach in virus response measures, with divisions most exposed on food security. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand quietly welcomed in the New Year, with COVID-19 preventing the usual festive celebrations. This week Muslims across the region prepare to enter the holy month of Ramadan under very different circumstances.
In this update we look back on the week that was, Monday 13 April to Sunday 19 April 2020:
The United Nations has condemned Phnom Penh’s ‘Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency’, unanimously passed on Friday by Cambodia’s one-party National Assembly. Rhona Smith, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia stated that emergency legislation “should be guided by human rights principles and should not, in any circumstances, be an excuse to quash dissent or disproportionately and negatively impact any other group”. The government lifted the inter-province travel ban early, in an effort to ease travel congestion during the Khmer New Year. In a move to stop coronavirus spreading, authorities are preparing to quarantine 15,000 garment workers in school-rooms who defied the inter-province travel ban—some have already been fired. The Labour Ministry spokesperson confirmed that workers would isolate for 14 days without wages. Meanwhile, the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus worsens, with new clothes piling up on Cambodia’s factory floors. There are estimates that more than half of the Kingdom’s 500 garment factories will have to suspend operations by the end of April. The Asian Development Bank forecasts economic growth in Cambodia to drop to 2.3% this year from 7.1% last year due to the pandemic.
Indonesia continues to reassess the economic hit from COVID-19, with Bank Indonesia now expecting the growth rate to be 2.3% in 2020—much lower than the 4.2%-4.6% projected earlier in March. This is more in line with forecasts made by the Asian Development Bank (2.5%) and the World Bank (2.1%). Last week Indonesia sold $4.3 billion of dollar bonds to help finance virus relief measures. Calls continue for Australia to provide support to Indonesia as it struggles to contain the virus. The resort island of Bali appears more relaxed with its enforcement of social-distancing measures compared to the capital Jakarta. Health experts believe infection rates will peak at the beginning of May and last until the end of June. With Ramadan starting later this week, Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs will hold a virtual meeting to confirm the moon sighting.
Regionally, Laos appears largely unaffected this past week, with official data confirming no new COVID-19 cases in 7 consecutive days. Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith announced an extension of the lockdown period, now in place until 3 May.
Malaysia will soon start buying hydroxychloroquine from India—the world’s largest producer—with New Delhi lifting a partial ban on exports of the anti-malarial drug to treat COVID-19 patients. Some analysts are calling this an early indication of improved relations between the two states. Malaysia is also starting to rely on antibody tests to supplement lab testing as numbers of cases in the country continue to increase. Strict screening processes are in place for Malaysians returning from neighbouring Singapore. A boat of 200 Rohingya refugees were denied entry into Malaysia due to coronavirus fears. The country’s indigenous population, who mostly reside in remote agricultural areas are being hit extra hard by the Movement Control Order, and some fear they will fall through the economic cracks. The global pandemic has highlighted Malaysia’s vital role in supply chains, with domestic companies like ‘Top Glove’ (already the world’s largest supplier of nitrile and latex medical gloves) on track for a record year.
In recent months, fighting has intensified in the Rakhine and Chin states between the Arakan Army (an armed group seeking greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people) and the Tatmadaw government troops. Rights groups are saying that communities there are coming under threat by both the pandemic and human rights violations. The president’s office announced that 24,896 prisoners will be released in an amnesty to mark the New Year and in what many believe is a move to ease pressure on overcrowded and unsanitary jails amid escalating coronavirus fears. Yangon Region has the highest number of confirmed cases in the country. An estimated 25,000 garment workers have been laid off across 40 factories to date. With Myanmar’s domestic economy hit hard by COVID-19, the country may come to rely on investment flows from foreign state-backed East Asia agencies to keep investment coming in and development projects in motion.
There is concern that the Philippines’ heavy-handed approach to the public health emergency is disproportionally affecting the country’s poorest and most vulnerable. Official police data confirms that 42,836 arrests were made in the first 11 days of the Luzon enhanced community quarantine, with media reporting the arrest of some street vendors for selling food. Duterte’s cash aid for the country’s poor has drawn criticism from middle-class Filipinos who feel hard done by in the economic downturn. Fintech companies like ‘Croptial’ may be able to offer a lifeline to some. The pandemic is also threatening the Philippines’ call centre industry, with some analysts predicting that in the long-term COVID-19 will accelerate the switch to automated services. Short-term opportunities from the upsurge in flight cancellations and financial-services enquiries won’t necessarily be enough to convince multinationals to not move forward with automation, especially with allegations that some centres are not complying with social distancing orders. Duterte softened on an earlier ban to stop healthcare workers from leaving for overseas employment.
It wasn’t that long ago that Singapore was praised for its model COVID-19 response model—but it now has the highest case rate in South East Asia, surpassing virus hot-spots like Malaysia and Indonesia. In the past week infections have surged, with the majority of cases being connected to migrant workers residing in dormitories. Alternatives to dormitory accommodation are being explored, such as floating hotels typically used for offshore and marine industry staff. Singapore is unique in that it has a disproportionate number of foreigners with COVID-19. The city-state’s renowned hawkers will receive a one-off payment to offset delivery costs associated with food-delivery platforms.
Social media tensions between Thailand and China erupted this week after a popular online Thai model shared a twitter message questioning whether the coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory. The spat has drawn support from Taiwan and Hong Kong, in what is being dubbed the “Milk Tea Alliance” against China’s nationalist trolls and speaks to the broader diplomatic tension with Beijing in the region. The country celebrated its quietest ever Songkran (New Year) period. With street celebrations banned and alcohol sales restricted, Thais opted for innovative ways to worship at temples. Thailand extends ban on passenger flights until the end of April in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus.
On Wednesday Vietnam introduced fines—10-20 million dong, roughly 3-6 months’ basic salary in Vietnam—for the dissemination of ‘fake news’ or rumours on social media amid fears of the coronavirus. As part of Hanoi’s crackdown on coronavirus misinformation, authorities have launched a public poster campaign titled “Fake news, real consequences”. Rights groups continue to pressure the government to release political prisoners, with fears that they are at serious risk of contracting the virus. ‘Rice ATMs’ able to dispense 1.5kg of rice are popping up around the country to provide relief for many families who would typically rely on cash-in-hand jobs or selling goods on the street. Vietnam chaired a special ASEAN+3 online COVID-19 summit earlier in the week, with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s opening his statement with: “It is in these grim hours that the solidarity of the ASEAN community shines like a beacon in the dark”.
Dr Lucy West, Senior Research Assistant, Griffith Asia Institute.