It would be an understatement to describe 2020 as a challenging year. Coronavirus swept the globe and over 1.6 million people have died from the disease.
Even in Southeast Asia, which has fared comparatively well in minimizing deaths, economies have either ground to a halt or deeply contracted due to the region’s reliance on exports and tourism.
Governments throughout the region have employed experimental and, at times, innovative approaches to combatting the pandemic, with mixed results. In this year-end update, we examine what worked and what didn’t in Southeast Asia’s battle against the coronavirus.
Vietnam has been the region’s biggest success story
Despite limited resources and a bustling border with China, Vietnam initially managed to contain the pandemic by halting travel with China early, deploying epidemic control teams to implement a massive test-and-trace regime, and committing to data transparency.
Life had returned to normal for most Vietnamese until a second wave spread from the city of Danang at the end of July. But Hanoi’s response was swift, getting the virus back under control by early September, and the government has not been shy to reimpose restrictions where needed since then.
Vietnam’s economy has been surprisingly resilient; it is the only Southeast Asian nation still projected to have positive economic growth this year. But that growth will be limited to 1.6 percent. It will be the first time Vietnam’s GDP growth has dipped below 5 percent in at least 20 years.
Brunei has successfully contained the spread of Covid-19 and has begun opening travel corridors with other countries in Southeast Asia. Schools and places of worship have been open since July, while businesses and restaurants have reopened gradually.
Brunei’s success can be attributed to its quick and drastic restrictions on travel, extensive testing, and strict quarantine rules. The small country may also have benefited from only sharing borders with Malaysia, which until recently, contained the virus reasonably well.
Cambodia has reported few cases and zero deaths
Despite weak health infrastructure and an initially slow response. Cambodia’s location may have played a role in its success, as the country is surrounded by Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, all of which have controlled the virus relatively well. In the latter half of the year, the government proceeded with plans to reopen the economy, having already reopened places of worship, schools, and many businesses and resumed some flights.
However, after an outbreak of imported cases in late November and the country’s first case of community spread in December, Cambodia has reimposed some travel and gathering restrictions. Prime Minister Hun Sen as of late has turned his attention to securing sufficient vaccine doses and has promised that they would be free to the public.
Laos, the most rural country in Southeast Asia, was also the last to report its first Covid-19 infection. Despite the country’s almost non-existent health care system, it has avoided a major outbreak. Geography and demographics may be important factors here: Laos is relatively sparsely populated and surrounded by neighbors which have managed to contain the virus relatively well. In an effort to boost its economy, Laos has already resumed travel to several countries in Southeast Asia and encouraged domestic tourism.
Timor-Leste, despite initial fears that its weak health infrastructure would not be able to handle an outbreak of Covid-19, has effectively contained the virus since March. After announcing a state of emergency, the government heavily restricted travel to and from Timor-Leste and strictly enforced health guidelines for all travelers and residents.
The Philippines is second only to Indonesia for the most officially reported cases in Southeast Asia. Since the government lifted most restrictions in June, a new surge in cases has overwhelmed the public health system and further damaged the economy.
Quarantines have since been reintroduced throughout the country and testing has steadily increased, but the government has yet to bring the virus under control. Protests against job losses and food shortages have cropped up across the country even as the government cracks down on dissent.