Southeast Asia sits as an outlier in its success as a region in managing the pandemic. In fact, countries like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand were better prepared to deal with the pandemic than most. Without hesitation, countries in the area utilized their experience and resources to manage the outbreaks in a fashion that prevented high economic costs. Nonetheless, after recent spikes and a lack of access to vaccines, a worry is growing in policymakers across the region that inoculating the populations will be difficult to accomplish. COVAX is a WHO initiative that provides significant assistance in this struggle as it has promised millions of vaccinations to countries across the region. COVAX donated millions of vaccines to Southeast Asia to assist in its inoculation outreach.
Southeast Asia and COVID-19
Aside from a few outliers including Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, much of Southeast Asia has fared well managing the pandemic. For example, Brunei, Vietnam, Timor Liste, Laos and Singapore all have total COVID-19 related deaths under 100. Similarly, both Cambodia and Thailand are under 1,000 COVID-19 related deaths. Almost all of these countries boast populations in the millions, with Vietnam alone having nearly 100 million people.
In sharp contrast, the wealthier developed nations in Northeast Asia fared far worse than the underdeveloped neighbors to the south. Japan has recorded 11,940 deaths and over 650,000 cases. Less stark, South Korea has recorded nearly 2,000 deaths and over 134,000 cases.
Essentially, Southeast Asian nations achieved this through a decisive response to the initial outbreak and a culture that made universal mask-wearing (95% of Thais and 94% of Vietnamese wear masks in public) and precautions palatable. The efficiency in response emerged from experience in dealing with previous outbreaks including SARS, bird flu and dengue fever. As cases began to rise in China and worry about the virus grew, countries across the region sprang into action. Southeast Asian countries initiated lockdowns, border closures, contact tracing and widespread testing. Many instituted public service campaigns to promote safety precautions, including mask-wearing and social distancing.
Vietnam illustrates this point well. Despite sharing a border with the epicenter of China, it has been a rare success story. After dealing with the SARS and the bird flu in 2000, it increased its medical infrastructure investment by 9% a year. As a result, when news about COVID-19 began to come out of Wuhan, Vietnam acted decisively. The country increased its screening procedures and extended the Lunar holiday to keep families at home. Vietnam also chose localized lockdowns as clusters developed, opposed to nationwide lockdowns that impose high economic costs. The national government also had a thorough testing and a contact tracing regime that slowed down the spread through proactive quarantining.
Nevertheless, the resources and experience that lend themselves to managing the pandemic with efficiency are not necessarily applicable to inoculating the population. Southeast Asia does not have an established pharmaceutical industry that can develop a homegrown vaccine. As a region filled with low- to middle-income countries, purchasing the vaccines necessary to inoculate the entire population is difficult. Without a vaccinated population, states remain vulnerable to COVID-19 spikes.
As a result, the vaccination rates are low in most Southeast Asian nations. As of May 17, 2021, none of the states in the region have vaccinated more than 10% of their population, except for Singapore, which vaccinated 23% of its population. Cambodia is the second-largest vaccinated population at 7% while Brunei is the least vaccinated at 0.2%. All other Southeast Asian states fall within the two rates.
The lack of vaccinations has become acutely problematic as Southeast Asia is bracing for a new wave of infections that threatens to become unmanageable. Cambodia’s daily rate shot up to nearly 500 a day. In the last three weeks, Laos has seen daily cases rise tenfold. Even in Vietnam, the poster child of managing the pandemic, “community transmissions began climbing sharply [as] workers have been told to prepare for 30,000 patients.” As Southeast Asia deals with the new surge, vaccinating its population becomes critical.
Nevertheless, to make up for this shortfall, WHO has donated millions of vaccines to Southeast Asia through COVAX. It began on March 2, 2021, when Cambodia received 300,000 vaccines. On April 23, 2021, Malaysia received 268,000 doses, and WHO aims to provide Malaysia 6 million in total. On May 8, Indonesia received 1.3 million AstraZeneca COVAX procured vaccines and is supposed to receive 6 million by the end of May. The Philippines received 2 million AstraZeneca vaccines and 193,000 Pfizer vaccines. Meanwhile, in late March, Vietnam welcomed 811,000 AstraZeneca vaccines in its first batch of vaccines from the COVAX fund.
As the world looks to turn the corner towards a post-pandemic world, vaccinating lower to middle-income countries similar to those in Southeast Asia is a necessary and critical step. Work must occur to inoculate the region to levels to allow a post-pandemic world to manifest. For example, BioNTech announced that it would develop a new manufacturing space. External powers including the Quad, China and Russia promise millions more in vaccine donations and further COVAX procured donations. Yet, WHO took a critical first step when COVAX donated millions of vaccines to Southeast Asia.
– Vincenzo Caporale
Photo: Wikipedia Commons