The Mixed Success of COVID-19 Responses across Southeast Asia:
And the Importance of Analytical Clarity
Iain D. Johnson
Despite being one of the first regions to be hit with COVID-19, the number of coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia has been significantly lower than in other parts of the world. This, alongside the successes of states like Vietnam and Thailand, has led to wide reporting of the region as an ideal model for pandemic response. Taken at face value, it is easy to see why this might be the case. With the 2003 SARS outbreak still in the living memory of the region, there has been rapid government response and the enforcement of behavioural changes that have been demonstrably effective in containing the spread of the virus. On average, it took 17 days for Southeast Asian states to implement lockdown measures or a state of emergency following confirmation of 50 cases. Additionally, there has been strong regional cooperation through ASEAN with the establishment of the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund at a Special Summit of April 14.
In Southeast Asia, COVID-19 has been treated as a public health issue rather than a partisan issue, and perhaps it is this difference in approach that has led to Western states embroiled in facial mask counter-movements to claim Southeast Asia as a success story. However, under close examination, it is plain to see that the spread of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia has not been without its own unique challenges. Worrying spikes continue to occur on a cyclical basis, and Indonesia and the Philippines are currently facing runaway daily infections.
With a total of 534,266 confirmed cases at the time of writing, Indonesia leads the region by a significant margin. Although the government was quick to announce a state of emergency on March 31, mixed messages have confused the country’s pandemic response. As the central government continues to carefully balance the spread of the virus against the threat to the Indonesian economy, President Joko Widodo has emphasised physical distancing over strict lockdown measures and encouraged job creation in the face of increasing case numbers. In response, local leaders have imposed community-led lockdowns and public health campaigns, though these have been met with condemnation by the government.
Following the announcement of a plan to begin vaccinating Indonesian citizens by the end of 2020, it is clear that Indonesia’s COVID-19 response is centred around achieving herd immunity. However, questions have been raised about how the logistical challenge of vaccinating 270 million people across 17,000 islands may be realistically overcome in a short enough time span to achieve a sufficient level of immunity in the population. Further, it is unclear how vaccination programs will be received given the false sense of security that has been provided by the false cures previously touted by members of Jokowi’s cabinet.
The Philippines has reported the second-highest number of confirmed cases at 428,864 cases at the time of writing. The first country outside of China to report a confirmed case, Filipinos have been dealing with COVID-19 since January 30. Like Indonesia, the Philippines was quick to declare a state of calamity, and militaristic lockdowns of various strictness were implemented across the country that disproportionately affected the poor. Though President Duterte has fiercely emphasised social distancing, a year of natural disasters has made such efforts challenging to say the least. In late October, the approach of Typhoon Goni saw the evacuation of nearly 1 million people to evacuation centres, that in some cases, were already being used to house coronavirus patients.
In November, the Philippines rolled out a vaccination plan seeking to achieve herd immunity by vaccinating 60 – 70 per cent of citizens in the next 3-5 years. Logistical challenges aside, the Philippines is still gripped by an anti-vax movement that has led to recent resurgences of previously eradicated diseases including measles and polio. With only 32 per cent of surveyed Filipino parents strongly agreeing in 2018 that vaccines are important—down from 93 per cent in 2015—it is unclear how the rollout will be received by vaccine sceptical citizens.
Despite the comparatively lower number of active cases to other regions, the challenges that some of the less affluent states within the region will experience in receiving adequate doses of vaccines, as well as the logistical and cultural challenges of achieving widespread vaccination, will result in COVID-19 being a fixture in the landscape of Southeast Asia for the coming years. As it stands, Southeast Asian states are on average posting GDP growth rates 6.45 per cent lower than projected for 2020, and many are currently experiencing the effects of COVID-related recession. These effects will continue to drive the desire to reopen economies, and without effective immunity, will inevitably result in further outbreaks among unvaccinated populations.
In addition to this, while the virus itself has not faced partisan political debate in the way we have seen in the West, there have certainly been political challenges. The enforcement of emergency measures has led Southeast Asia to experience what has been described as one of the most extensive democratic regressions in the world. Rising populism, authoritarian rule, military involvement in politics, punitive punishments, mass surveillance, media and protest restriction, and the targeting of refugees are just some of the concerning outcomes identified in a recent Freedom House report.
Important to note is that Southeast Asia is not homogenous. The states of the region, while bound together through their shared participation in regional cooperation bodies such as ASEAN, are unique and disparate. In addition, they face less visible challenges in responding to COVID-19 when we attempt to understand and respond to the pandemic beyond the number of individuals infected. It is true that there have been successes, and it remains true that the early handling of the pandemic provides a number of lessons to states still refusing to acknowledge the efficacy of behavioural modification policies such as mask-wearing and social distancing. However, there is a danger in touting Southeast Asia as a success story and discounting the number of reported infections as low. Some states will be fighting this pandemic for years to come and underreporting of this fact has the potential to lead to complacency in the face of the dangers of the virus, but also in the slow and steady rollback of liberal freedoms.
Iain D. Johnson is a MEXT scholar undertaking his MA at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Political Science with a focus in Indo-Pacific regional affairs. He holds a BA in International Relations & Politics from Monash University where he has worked as a researcher and teaching associate since graduating with honours.