In terms of global coverage in recent weeks, North Asia has received the most international attention, with China being the source and original epicentre of the virus, the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics scheduled to kick off in July, and South Korea and Taiwan’s prompt mobilisation of resources and relative success thus far in ‘flattening the curve’.
COVID-19 is dominating news headlines and social media feeds globally. Over the coming weeks the Griffith Asia Institute will explore different 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.
Much like the current global trend, so far it’s evident that state responses in the region are not uniform, as each state grapples with different domestic conditions. Weekly snapshots from the region present an opportunity for Australia and South East Asian nations to keep watch of each other, and to learn from shared experiences.
In this update we look back on the week that was, Monday 23 to Sunday 29 March 2020:
Rights groups in the Kingdom have shed light on the government’s further clamp-down on free speech, with documented arrests of opposition supporters and individuals accused of spreading “fake news” related to the virus and the CPP’s response. The country’s notoriously overcrowded prison and detention facilities have also been labelled a “ticking time bomb” for a major COVID-19 outbreak. In response to workers being unable to afford masks, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that anyone caught price gouging will be punished and banned from doing business for “life”. On the economic front, the government has eased restrictions on borrowing and issued a tax holiday for garment factories, but with many European and American retailers shutting up shop along with the slowdown in raw materials from China, Cambodia’s 160,000 precarious garment workers are hanging on by a thread.
Headlines out of Indonesia last week pointed to an imminent public health disaster, with weak government coordination and a public communications strategy showing little results thus far in containing the virus. On Tuesday, President Jokowi inspected a new makeshift COVID-19 emergency hospital in Jakarta, housed at the site of the former athletes’ village for the 2018 Asian Games. With Greater Jakarta as the national epicentre of the virus, thousands of Indonesians (many of whom are informal sector workers in Jakarta) have left for their hometowns, causing authorities to seriously consider imposing provincial travel restrictions. With Ramadan (23 April – 23 May 2020) shortly around the corner, and the annual hometown exodus (‘mudik’) for ‘Lebaran’ or ‘Idul Fitri’, a ban on all mudik travel is under consideration—but many have already questioned how it could be enforced.
Last week Laos reported its first confirmed COVID-19 cases—the last country in South East Asia to do so. People are hoping for the government to exercise price controls in response to price gouging and mask scarcity, as many citizens resort to improvised DIY solutions. After a year of damaging natural disasters, Laos’ tourism, construction and manufacturing sectors will take a further hit amid the coronavirus pandemic. There are also concerns that thousands of migrant workers returning from neighbouring countries (via border points temporarily re-opened) won’t comply with mandatory 14-day quarantine orders. A Chinese medical team arrived in Vientiane along with 2,000 virus detection kits to assist Laos in prevention and control efforts.
Currently Malaysia has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in South East Asia. The country’s “Movement Control Order” was extended by 2 weeks until 14 April and in an effort to keep Malaysians at home, the new Perikatan Nasional government along with telecommunication companies announced free internet data usage for the country. Malaysia also received its largest consignment of COVID-19 medical equipment to date from China, a gesture said to be in recognition of Kuala Lumpur’s early support to Beijing. A RM250 billion economic stimulus package, dubbed the “Care Package”, is to be directed at supporting employees and businesses hit by the pandemic. But the debt financing for this package has the potential to cause flow-on economic problems in the future.
The country can no longer claim the title of the most populous country yet to report any infections. The government has been criticised for turning a blind eye to the pandemic. It’s not just the state’s poor health infrastructure which has many concerned. For many citizens, the prospect of unemployment is a greater worry than infection. As neighbouring countries enter into lockdown, thousands of Myanmar’s migrant workers are returning home. Add to the mix the country’s geographic location, sharing borders with Thailand, Bangladesh, Laos, China and India—and roughly 27 land checkpoints—and it becomes even more challenging to deal with a wide-scale outbreak. State officials have ordered the closure of public spaces in an effort to educate citizens of the need to practice social-distancing. Even the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) were forced to postpone their 75th ‘diamond jubilee’ anniversary because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
To mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19, the Philippines has slashed interest rates and administered cash aid directed at 18 million poor Filipino families. Congress also granted President Duterte additional powers during the crisis, including: directing private hospitals and medical facilities to house health care workers and public transport to ferry front-line workers—he was unsuccessful in securing greater powers which would have enabled the take-over of private firms, such as public utilities and private banks. Reports that authorities prioritised the testing of politicians and public officials (with no coronavirus symptoms) aroused mass public anger. And, following several officials testing positive for the virus, Duterte himself entered into self-quarantine over the weekend.
The country announced a landmark S$48 billion package to aid Singapore through this “unprecedented crisis”. Combined with S$6.4 billion announced last month, Singapore will be setting aside roughly 11% of GDP for the fight against COVID-19. Legal powers to enforce social-distancing measures were also stepped up. As of Friday, under Singapore’s Infectious Disease Act, fines of up to S$10,000 and six month jail terms (or both) can be issued to people who fail to comply with the 1m social-distancing regulations—these include regulations on queuing and sitting on seats marked not to be occupied. The city-state’s migrant workers were also told that their work passes could be revoked if they failed to comply with the tighter orders.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha declared a state of emergency to remain in force until 30 April. The decree bars travel to Thailand via land, sea and air (with some exceptions), punishes those hoarding food, water and medical supplies, along with a number of other social restrictions. Citizens were warned of sharing news not officially sanctioned, with the PM saying: “Only I, or someone I assign, will be reporting progress on the situation to the public”. Many observers have already noted the return to a more authoritarian atmosphere. On the public health front, some hospitals in Thailand are deploying “ninja robots” to take patient temperatures and handle other interactions in a bid to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure to medical workers.
Vietnam was the first country outside of China to be hit by SARS (2003), which explains its aggressive contact tracing and quarantine regime. As of Thursday, just under 45,000 people were in quarantine facilities across the country—the majority of which had recently returned from overseas. Further social-distancing measures were also implemented in the form of limited domestic flights and bans on public gatherings. Cutesy public health campaigns continue to create smiles and citizen awareness. Meanwhile, the state continues to crackdown on “fake news”, specifically reports suggesting that Hanoi hasn’t been transparent about the extent of the virus’ spread. Some analysts are suggesting that the coronavirus outbreak presents an opportunity for the Communist Party of Vietnam to regain much needed legitimacy (if handled well) after a year of bad public relations.
Dr Lucy West, Senior Research Assistant, Griffith Asia Institute