The Latest on Southeast Asia: February 3, 2022

The Omicron variant has begun to spread in Southeast Asia’s largest countries, just as many governments were preparing to consider the virus “endemic” and adjust policy responses accordingly. Some were hit hard and fast, and cases are already subsiding. Others are closer to the beginning of a new wave, with cases on the upswing. As seen with Omicron worldwide, this wave appears not to be as fatal as previous variants but is still placing considerable stress on public health infrastructure and national economies.

The Philippines began reporting rising new case numbers just after Christmas. By mid-January, reported cases peaked at nearly 40,000 per day, surpassing the previous record by over 25 percent. But the outbreak began to fade just as quickly. More importantly, reported deaths only spiked moderately, with a peak of around 260 per day, a little over half of the record set during the Delta wave. Doctors and patients alike expressed optimism and gratefulness for vaccinations, which helped lessen the severity of illnesses. On February 2, the Philippine Department of Health reverted the country’s classification from “high” to “moderate risk.” The government now plans to lift travel restrictions from 150 countries on February 10.

While the end of the Omicron wave may be in sight for the Philippines, Indonesia is catching its first glimpse as new case counts rapidly rise. Indonesia has the second lowest rate of vaccination in Southeast Asia, with just under half the population fully vaccinated, and most of those with Sinovac and Sinopharm that have shown limited efficacy against Omicron. But a recent public health survey estimates that 85 percent of Indonesians have Covid-19 antibodies, indicating that much of the population has already been infected and thus may have some protection against severe illness. Despite the recent rise in cases, Indonesia has moved ahead with plans to resume direct flights to Bali, the popular tourist destination. For most of Indonesia though, the promised “New Normal” policy remains out of reach until the country finds the other side of the latest Covid-19 surge.

Malaysia has also put off plans to move to an “endemic phase” of living with Covid-19 once daily case numbers dropped below 1,000. The country is currently reporting more than 5,000 daily new cases and rising. Previous waves left Malaysia with the highest recorded Covid-19 mortality rate in Southeast Asia. So far that is not the case with Omicron, as deaths have not risen significantly and the Malaysian government has committed to no more lockdowns. The health minister struck a hopeful tone on February 1, tweeting that the country is better protected now than in previous waves due to the high vaccination rate. Malaysia started vaccinating children aged 5–11 at the end of January.

The overall positive trends in the region’s handling of the Omicron variant should not diminish the seriousness of the disease or the magnitude of this latest wave. The sheer volume of people infected by the highly transmissible variant is straining hospital systems and could push some in the region beyond capacity. But regional governments seem heartened by the trend of a quick spike followed by a precipitous fall in cases, which they believe will delay but not derail plans to transition to a “new normal.”

For updates on the region’s ongoing struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic, visit our online Tracker.