COVID-19 is dominating news headlines and social media feeds globally. During the pandemic, the Griffith Asia Institute regularly 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.
South East Asian markets experienced a double whammy last week with the drop in global oil prices. Oil producing countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are bracing with a big hit, along with Singapore’s offshore and marine sector. State revenues in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei rely on oil and gas projects, and the COVID-19 pandemic is compounding an already volatile industry.
In this update we look back on the week that was, Monday 20 April to Sunday 27 April 2020:
Last week I reported that the Kingdom would quarantine 15,000 garment workers who defied the inter-province travel ban. On Friday, the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training said that so far over 5,000 workers tested did not have the coronavirus.At the time of writing, Cambodia has not recorded a positive case for two weeks. To date the country has reported 122 cases. On Saturday, China’s Ministry of Defence donated 16 tonnes of medical supplies to their Cambodian counterpart. This is the third time Phnom Penh has benefited from Beijing’s ‘mask diplomacy’ during the coronavirus pandemic. Previous support has seen the despatch of Chinese medical experts (March 25) and the provision of medical equipment. In an interesting move, the European Union has provided Cambodia with a $66.7 million grant to help restore the economy, in apparent recognition of the Kingdom’s COVID-19 response.
Indonesia, the region’s most populous Muslim community welcomed in the start of Ramadan in unprecedented conditions. President Joko Widodo had earlier said he would rely on persuasion to keep people at home during the mudik homecoming, but on Tuesday announced at a cabinet meeting that mudik would be banned. Each year during Ramadan more than 20 million workers leave Jakarta to celebrate the Eid holiday, but with travel now heavily restricted until June and many low-income workers without jobs, many are struggling to continue living in the capital. The government has boosted subsidies for rice, electricity and other essentials, in addition to providing 1 million rupiah for low-income households in the capital Jakarta. But some groups say that the assistance is struggling to reach some Indonesians who don’t have a government issued identity card.
Laos has registered 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases since March 24 with no related fatalities. Health officials state that this number has remained steady for nine consecutive days now but warned that the small landlocked country remains vulnerable because of limited medical resources.
New restrictions mean that only 400 Malaysians working in Singapore are allowed to return per day after being granted an entry permit, with all arrivals forced to quarantine at designated centres for two weeks. Some rights groups have aired forced labour concerns in Malaysia’s rubber glove factories—responsible for two-thirds of the world’s supply—with global demand expected to increase by 30% this year. Those migrant workers who didn’t return home worry more about where they will source their next meal, rather than COVID-19. Muslims adapt to social restrictions with traditional Ramadan bazaars going virtual.
On Tuesday, a World Health Organization driver died when gunmen fired on him and another worker as they transported coronavirus test samples from Rakhine state (where fighting has been raging for over 15 months) to the city of Yangon. Both government soldiers and Arakan Army troops have blamed each other for the shooting. Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, said: “The death of this WHO staff member … illustrated the travesty of continuing war amidst a global pandemic”. Thousands of migrant workers from China’s southwest Yunnan province are returning to Myanmar via the Laukkai land border in the country’s northern Shan state. The government requires returning migrants to quarantine for 14-days, but local facilities lack the capacity to accommodate such high numbers, with some quarantine measures therefore not being observed. Aung San Suu Kyi has been taking to Facebook daily to communicate the government’s efforts to curb the coronavirus. Myanmar’s military appear to be leading the country’s approach to managing the coronavirus.
Several provinces in Luzon, including Metro Manila, are under an extended quarantine until May 15, in what is called ‘enhanced community quarantine’. The Central Bank Governor said that the coronavirus pandemic will likely see the Philippine economy contract for the first time in two decades. Manila reported that army soldiers were ambushed and killed by New People’s Army rebels while they were distributing coronavirus aid money in the north-eastern province of Aurora. This latest clash is despite the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire until April 30, in line with the United Nation’s call for a global truce during the COVID-19 pandemic. Human Rights Watch have warned of a potential serious coronavirus outbreak in prisons following the Cebu jail outbreak, which is the biggest known COVID-19 cluster in the Philippines. In a move to ease tensions and spread goodwill, a unit of Empire’s stormtroopers (the 501st Cebu Scarif Garrison) assisted in manning checkpoints while the province remains in enhanced community quarantine. President Duterte announced he would give P50 million to the Filipino scientists who develop a vaccine—5 times the amount originally offered the week before.
Singapore currently has the highest number of confirmed cases in South East Asia, followed by Indonesia and the Philippines. The city-state moved to extend lockdown restrictions with the “circuit breaker” now in place until June 1—originally imposed at the start of April and due to end on May 4. While a slight dip in local cases is a positive sign, health experts have warned that it is still too early to tell if Singapore has turned a corner, with the slide needing to continue for at least a week. Meanwhile, authorities prepare for the worst by building a temporary mega structure at Tanjong Pagar Terminal to accommodate up to 15,000 people. The Changi Exhibition Centre has been repurposed into a community isolation facility for migrant workers recovering from COVID-19. Robots deliver meals and provide teleconferencing services to reduce contact. In an effort to separate healthy foreign workers, around 10,000 employed in essential services have been relocated into 18 alternative living sites, including military camps, floating hotels, and sports halls. A bill is currently before parliament to enable virtual marriage solemnisations during the COVID-19 outbreak. Singapore carried through with its tough penalties for those violating the lockdown—a 34 year old man who breached the 14 day stay at home order to have pork rib soup was the first to be sentenced to 6 weeks in jail.
Eight of Thailand’s airlines are hoping to negotiate terms for “soft loans” from the government, with separate negotiations to commence for the government to provide liquidity support to the national carrier—Thai Airways. Thailand is set to borrow $18.6 billion this fiscal year to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. The head of the ministry’s public debt office stated that 80% will come from the domestic market and bank loans, and potentially from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank—“if the terms are appropriate”. Thailand automatically extended visas for foreigners for three months in recognition of the travel restrictions and border closures. Devout Buddhist novices press on with their studies while observing social distancing.
Vietnam has gradually begun easing some COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. But the country is erring on the side of caution, moving toward a model it calls “live safely together”—maintaining precautions such as social distancing but letting some people return to work. Domestic air travel has been partially restored and businesses that closed during the lockdown have resumed, including Toyota Motor Group. Vietnam, the 2020 ASEAN chair, committed to enhancing cooperation with the US in the fight against the coronavirus. In a meeting convened on April 23, ASEAN foreign ministers and the US agreed to increase information and experience sharing, policy coordination and capacity building. Vietnamese media are reporting that Hanoi donated more than 1 million facemasks overseas (including to Western Europe, Russia and the US), as “an apparent sign of goodwill”.
Dr Lucy West, Senior Research Assistant, Griffith Asia Institute.