Southeast Asia keeps COVID-19 in check

Unlike in Europe, North America, Russia, Brazil and, recently India, the COVID-19 pandemic has applied the brakes to its killing spree in Southeast Asia.

Jun 20, 2020

By Joseph Benny
Unlike in Europe, North America, Russia, Brazil and, recently India, the COVID-19 pandemic has applied the brakes to its killing spree in Southeast Asia.

A few months ago, much of Southeast Asia appeared to be heading for a health crisis. However, the region’s worst fears have been mostly avoided due to deft handling of the situation.

Tourism-oriented Thailand was reported to be vulnerable due to the large number of travellers it had received from Wuhan, where the pandemic first emerged in China. By January end, it had the second-highest number of cases outside China.

Initially, the virus caused deaths and misery across the region, particularly in the Philippines, in Indonesia and in cramped migrant workers’ dormitories in Singapore and Malaysia.

But now, six months after the pandemic began, Southeast Asia has won kudos for its response after economic and social life started ticking again in accordance with the “new normal.”

By acting quickly, and by pressing into service people-friendly healthcare systems, health ministries in many Southeast Asian countries avoided the explosion in community transmission seen elsewhere.

In Cambodia, 2,900 healthcare workers were given training and deployed throughout January and February. “They implemented aggressive rapid detection and contact tracing,” said Dr. Li Ailan, WHO representative to Cambodia.

In Thailand, more than one million health volunteers were sent to monitor communities.

Vietnam, a country of 97 million people, has not reported a single coronavirus-related death. The communist nation has had just 341 confirmed cases despite its long border with China and the millions of Chinese visitors it receives each year.

This is a remarkable feat for a lower-middle income country which has only eight doctors for every 10,000 people, a third of the ratio in South Korea, according to the World Bank.

All those diagnosed as COVID-19 positive were hospitalised, even if they were asymptomatic, in most Southeast Asian nations. They also conducted mass testing across buildings or neighbourhoods where positive cases were identified.

Of course, mistakes have been made. Singapore neglected migrant workers who live in overcrowded dormitories, which resulted in most of its 40,197 cases. Malaysia’s biggest spike is attributed to an event at a mosque near Kuala Lumpur, after a failure to ban religious gatherings.

However, the countries in the region got their act together soon. Restrictions on people’s movement in Malaysia were particularly strict. Only one person from a family was allowed outside to shop for groceries, and even fitness freaks were not allowed out for daily exercise.

“Early and aggressive measures by member countries, including unprecedented physical distancing measures, have helped keep the number of cases low as compared to other parts of the world,” the Southeast Asia office of the WHO said on May 15. 

The youthful demographic in some countries in the region also worked to their advantage.

After the pandemic was brought under control, roads in Southeast Asia are once again filled with traffic, while markets are thronged with mask-wearing customers who have their temperatures checked regularly.

In the city state of Singapore, curbs on schools, weddings and funerals have been lifted since the beginning of this month. Singapore had reported 41,473 cases and 26 deaths as of June 18.

Cambodia’s approach has been successful, despite its initial downplaying of the pandemic. As of early June, it had reported 126 confirmed cases with 124 recovered patients and no deaths.

Southeast Asia cannot afford to be complacent. The region containing one quarter of the global population continues to be vulnerable due to high population density, huge urban slums, migrant groups and socioeconomic barriers to compliance with social

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