Southeast Asian Responses to COVID-19: Diversity in the Face of Adversity

For further coverage of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia, please visit the CSIS Southeast Asia COVID-19 Tracker, which will serve as a repository of information to chart the course of the virus in each country, summarize national policy responses, and report on economic and geopolitical impacts. The following commentary draws on the Tracker’s data.

Southeast Asian countries were hard hit by the SARS epidemic in 2003, and regional leaders vowed to build up national capabilities and regional coordination to respond rapidly and effectively to future pandemics. Subsequent outbreaks of H5N1 and H1N1 avian influenza reinforced this focus on pandemic preparedness, and the issue remained high on the agenda of national political leaders and on the regional agenda of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Yet Southeast Asia remains a highly diverse region, from levels of economic development to demographics to systems of government. In the face of COVID-19, these differences have driven markedly different national responses, with Singapore and Vietnam emerging as global models for early action and aggressive containment, the Philippines standing out for its belated and chaotic response, and the poorest countries in the region mounting virtually no response at all to the looming pandemic. As is so often the case in Southeast Asia, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis is being defined by the diversity of the region, with stark variation in the speed, tactics, and efficacy in each nation’s response.

Singapore, a wealthy, hyper-organized city-state, has led one of the most successful responses in the world, helped in part by its extraordinarily effective bureaucracy, one-party control, and meticulous planning since the SARS epidemic killed 33 people in Singapore in 2003. Singapore banned travelers from China beginning in late January and launched: massive screening of individuals’ temperatures in malls and other public places; widespread free testing of potential cases, with more than 39,000 people tested so far; extensive contact tracing; and mandatory quarantines of all citizens who have travelled overseas or have had close contact with confirmed cases. Singapore’s excellent health care system has enabled it to provide a ventilator to every COVID-19 patient who needs one, and it has developed an antibody test to determine whether someone has been exposed to and recovered from the virus, which has been used to trace clusters of cases that can then be isolated. The result of these early and aggressive efforts has been that Singapore has had only two deaths, while businesses and schools remain open.

Vietnam, a fast-growing but still developing country with far fewer resources than Singapore, also launched a rapid and aggressive response to the coronavirus outbreak that so far has been highly successful, with zero reported deaths so far, according to government data. Vietnam’s shared border with China and bustling cross-border trade made it highly vulnerable to the spreading of the virus, but its leaders quickly halted flights from China and closed schools nationwide. Vietnam also became the first country outside of China to quarantine a large residential area when it sealed off part of a province north of Hanoi in mid-February after an outbreak was traced to workers returning from Wuhan. The ability of the Communist Party of Vietnam to mobilize society has been on full display through clear public messaging, the ability to isolate individuals with symptoms and track their second- and third-hand contacts, the quarantining of incoming travelers, and the enlistment of the services of medical students, retired doctors, and nurses —all despite a lack of testing capacity. The government has also been predictably effective at policing bans on business closures and large gatherings, and it has relied on its network of informants to help monitor and surveil citizens and report suspected cases. Vietnam’s aggressive containment and monitoring strategies appear to have paid off, even without testing, as the country has had only 163 reported cases, with 20 deaths and no deaths, as of March 27, although data is almost certainly incomplete.

Malaysia has been one of the hardest hits in Southeast Asia, with 2,161 cases and 26 deaths as of March 27. A major contributing factor was the astounding decision to allow a large religious gathering of over 16,000 people at a mosque outside of Kuala Lumpur in late February, which led directly to the transmission of several hundred cases throughout Malaysia as well as to Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Singapore. After a sharp spike in confirmed cases in mid-March, Malaysia instituted a two-week lockdown (now extended to April 14) to stem the tide, including closing down schools, shops, some public services, and most places of worship. It is also ramping up testing and contact tracing. Following initial nonchalance, Malaysia’s recent steps have demonstrated its capacity to undertake major action and maintain public order. Brunei, a tiny sultanate of less than half a million people surrounded by Malaysia and the South China Sea, has the highest infection rate per capita in the region. As of March 27, it had 115 confirmed cases March 25, it had 104 confirmed cases, most of which were linked to the Malaysian mosque event, numbers that will grow with further testing. The Brunei government has subsequently clamped down on travel, imposed strict quarantines, and ramped up testing.

Other countries in the region have been far less coherent and organized in their approach. Indonesia and the Philippines highlight the risks associated with weak institutions, poor public health systems, and a lack of centralized control. In both countries, testing has been virtually non-existent, and government directives have been halting and confusing. In Jakarta, restaurants, bars, and entertainment centers have been shuttered and religious activities suspended, but malls and grocery stores remain open. However, President Jokowi has refused to restrict travel nationwide despite the documented spread from Jakarta to numerous provinces, although regional lockdowns are likely to begin soon. With minimal testing capabilities even in Jakarta, Indonesia’s 1,046 cases and 87 deaths as of March 27 are likely significantly underreported.

The Philippines response has been widely criticized for both its sluggish start and its draconian and chaotic ramping up. For several weeks into the pandemic, President Duterte downplayed the risks of the virus and resisted public calls to restrict travel and visitors from mainland China, while his health minister warned about “political and diplomatic repercussions” of restricting travel with China. Duterte’s sudden shift to drastic action came in mid-March with a rambling speech in which he announced a month-long quarantine of metro Manila (subsequently expanded to the rest of Luzon, which is home to half of the Philippine population). Duterte’s deployment of the police and military to enforce a dusk-to-dawn curfew and the lack of clarity and conflicting government messages on fundamental questions—including the hours and areas under curfew, whether public transportation would be suspended, and whether food workers should report to work—have created chaos, confusion, and anxiety in the capitol region. President Duterte has also been granted temporary emergency powers by Congress.

Thailand, which is navigating a return to a semblance of democratic rule after five years of military leadership, came under much criticism for its slow and almost lackadaisical initial response. A recent surge in cases has led the Prayuth government to declare a state of emergency that will put the country in lockdown until the end of April, with borders closed, social gatherings banned, travel among provinces restricted, and all but essential shops closed.

For Cambodia, China’s closest ally in Southeast Asia, the most distinctive part of its response has been Prime Minister Hun Sen’s embrace of China and President Xi Jinping. Hun Sen personally travelled to China in February, kept China-bound flights operating, and continued cooperative activities such as military exercises to burnish China’s image in the face of the pandemic. Hun Sen has also repeatedly downplayed the severity of the crisis. In coming weeks and months, it will be interesting to see if Hun Sen’s fealty to China will put it at the front of the line for Chinese assistance.

Meanwhile, in Laos and Myanmar, two countries that border China, COVID-19 has laid bare their virtually non-existent public health systems, with both countries incredulously reporting zero cases until this week, when the countries reported six and five cases respectively as of March 27. With weak governance and public health systems, and a large number of migrant workers currently returning from neighboring countries, cases can be expected to surge. As the two countries confront these challenges in coming weeks, Laos’s one-party system and the Myanmar military’s reach across much of the country will be assets, but Myanmar’s ongoing civil conflicts and large volume of internally displaced people will prove major challenges.

The coming weeks will be an extraordinary test for all ASEAN countries, and it remains to be seen whether the countries that took clear, early action, notably Singapore and Vietnam, will emerge better off. Questions also loom large about whether Vietnam, as this year’s ASEAN chair, will be able to convene key ASEAN meetings slated for late summer and fall, including the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asian summit. The first of two planned ASEAN Leaders Summits for the year has already been postponed from early April to the end of June, and President Trump’s plan to host the ASEAN Leaders for a U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Las Vegas in mid-March was scuttled in the face of the looming pandemic. The disruption of the ASEAN calendar and the economic and political fallout of the COVID-19 crisis may further sideline ASEAN at a time when many of its members worry about ASEAN’s unity and relevance.

Amy Searight is senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Brian Harding serves as deputy director and fellow of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Brian Harding

Brian Harding

Former Deputy Director and Fellow, Southeast Asia Program

Amy Searight