After months of quarantine, parts of Southeast Asia are abandoning their “zero-Covid” policy and preparing to live with the virus, despite experts’ warnings that it may be too soon.
This summer, Covid-19 swept across the region, fueled by the highly infectious Delta variant, with cases rising sharply in July and peaking in most countries by August.
Now, governments in Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam are looking to reopen borders and public spaces in order to revitalize their economies, particularly the vital tourism industry. Experts are concerned that low vaccination rates in much of the region, as well as the widespread use of lower-efficacy vaccines such as China’s Sinovac, could lead to a disaster.
Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank, warned that if vaccination rates with high-efficacy vaccines aren’t high enough before restrictions are lifted, Southeast Asia’s health-care systems will be overwhelmed.
However, for much of the general public and many regional leaders, there appear to be few other options. Vaccines are in short supply, and mass vaccination is unlikely to occur in many Southeast Asian countries in the coming months. Meanwhile, as people lose their jobs and are confined to their homes, families go hungry.
Many Southeast Asian countries imposed strict restrictions from June to August in an attempt to control the Covid wave.
Malaysia and Indonesia imposed nationwide lockdowns, while Thailand and Vietnam imposed lockdowns in high-risk areas. Millions of people were told to stay at home whenever possible and were prohibited from traveling within the country; schools were closed, public transportation was suspended, and public gatherings were prohibited.
Since then, the number of new cases reported on a daily basis has decreased across the region, though it remains high. According to Johns Hopkins University (JHU) data, the Philippines reports nearly 20,000 cases per day, with Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia each recording approximately 15,000 cases every 24 hours. Infection rates in Indonesia have dropped the most, with the country now reporting a few thousand cases per day.
The peak has barely passed, and vaccination rates are dismally low in some places – but some governments are already reopening.
Starting next month, Vietnam plans to reopen the resort island of Phu Quoc to foreign tourists. The decision was made due to economic pressures, with the tourism minister stating that the pandemic had “seriously harmed” the tourism industry. So far, fewer than 7% of the population has been fully vaccinated, far short of the 70% to 90% cited by experts as a requirement for herd immunity.
Thailand intends to reopen its capital, Bangkok, and other major tourist destinations to foreign tourists by October, in the hopes of reviving the country’s faltering tourism industry, which accounted for more than 11 percent of the country’s GDP in 2019. Approximately 21% of the Thai population has been fully immunized.
Indonesia, which has immunized more than 16% of its population, has also relaxed its restrictions, allowing public spaces to reopen and factories to resume full production. By October, foreign tourists may be permitted to enter certain parts of the country, including the resort island of Bali.
Malaysia, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the region, with more than 56 percent of its population fully immunized, reopened Langkawi, a cluster of 99 islands and the country’s most popular tourist destination, to domestic tourists last week. Several states have also begun to ease restrictions on vaccinated people’s ability to dine in restaurants and travel across state lines.
In some ways, the rapid reopening of the region reflects the “living with Covid” approach taken in Western countries such as the United Kingdom and parts of the United States, where daily life has essentially resumed as normal.
However, many Southeast Asian governments may not have much of a choice. Vaccine supplies in the region remain depleted, exacerbated by repeated delays and a global shortage. Some countries were slow to obtain doses, leaving them unprepared when the latest wave hit, and some middle-income countries, including Thailand and Malaysia, are ineligible for subsidized rates through the global vaccine initiative COVAX.