BY: Chaitra Arjunpuri
PEJOURNAL – When Covid-19 hit the East, first China, then Thailand, Japan, and South Korea last year, the West observed the situation carefully from the other side of the world. Not many of them expected how severely they would be hit very soon, as the death toll rocketed over 200,000 in Europe and 600,000 in the United States. As of now, the US, Italy, Spain, France, and the UK are all ahead of China with the highest numbers of reported cases and deaths.
Though Southeast Asian countries, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, were among the first to be hit by COVID-19, the US has become the new global epicenter of the pandemic, resulting in a quarter of the universal coronavirus-related casualties. Some of the ASEAN countries were successful in fighting the pandemic, garnering global admiration for their response to the emergency.
While Indonesia, with nearly 5,000 deaths, and the Philippines with nearly 2,000 deaths are still reeling under the pressure of the epidemic like any other countries across the world, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand in the region hardly wheezed. How did these countries fightback the crisis despite being so close to China, the source of Covid-19, and India, one of the current hotspots of the epidemic? Is it a genetic immunity, or the culture, or the measures taken by these countries, or the combination of all and many more, still remains an unsolved mystery.
The case of Vietnam stands out among these. With a population of over 97 million, Vietnam saw no casualties from coronavirus. With 233 confirmed cases, Cambodia, and with 20 cases, Laos also saw zero deaths and no local transmission since April. While Thailand had only 58 deaths with 3,297 confirmed cases, Myanmar recorded only six with 350 confirmed cases. Let’s see some of the unsung success stories of these ASEAN countries in detail.
Surrounded by Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, Brunei rarely finds its place in the media. However, with 141 confirmed cases, and a record of only three deaths, the oil-rich sultanate has not only garnered media attention in Southeast Asia but also in the global news. While its border trio countries and better-known Western counterparts are still raging under the epidemic, Brunei succeeded in containing the coronavirus with its aggressive approach.
The country saw the first confirmed case on March 9 and the officials immediately jumped into action. Any individual, including a citizen from abroad, arriving in the country had to mandatorily self-isolate for two weeks or face a penalty of “imprisonment up to a period of 6 months, or a fine up to $10,000, or both”. Added to that the sultanate banned not only its citizens but also foreigners from leaving the country on March 15 to contain the epidemic spread.
Coronavirus began raging in early March in Malaysia as many other countries and eventually crossed 8,800 cases. However, by early June the cases started dipping down to less than 20 and have not spiked up. With 8,956 confirmed cases, the country has recorded 124 deaths so far becoming the latest success story in Southeast Asia.
As the cases increased, Malaysia declared a lockdown and within a week around 95% of the population adhered to the order. They trusted “the experts and the bureaucracy”. They didn’t question unlike people in western countries. Most even felt that “the government lifted the lockdown too early”.
Moreover, the country had learned from the experience of fighting back the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the H1N1 flu in 2009. Like many other countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia also hospitalized those diagnosed as coronavirus positive even if they were asymptomatic. The country’s response was “led by health experts rather than politicians”. For instance, when the Malaysian deputy health minister, Noor Azmi Ghazali, was photographed breaking strict lockdown rules, he was fined, as it sent a strong message to the public.
Restrictions on movement in the country were made more strict. People were sternly ordered to stay indoors even for daily workouts and exercise. Only one person in a family was allowed to go out to buy groceries.
The world thought Thailand will be more vulnerable to the pandemic as it received a large number of travelers from Wuhan, the origin of Covid-19, and by the end of January, the country recorded the second-highest number of cases outside China. However, the country has recorded 3297 cases with 58 deaths so far with no cases of local transmission.
Interestingly, Thailand’s low rate of infection is also shared by other countries in the Mekong River basin like Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. Even Yunnan, the southwestern Chinese province through which the Mekong flows before meandering to Southeast Asia, also recorded fewer than 190 cases that are not active anymore.
Like its neighboring countries, Thailand also had learned lessons from the SARS epidemic in 2002 and officials acted fast to avoid transmission at the community level. After Wuhan transmissions, another wave of infection was set out by people from Japan, Europe, and the US. A Thai boxing event also turned into a nightmare spreading the epidemic. A lockdown was enforced in March and local transmissions receded. The country even canceled Thai New Year festivities in April. Almost all the recent cases in the country have been reported among those who arrived from abroad.
Though a sense of regularity is returning to the country since July, the International Monetary Fund foresees that the Thai economy would “shrink by at least 6.5% this year”.
More than “8 million Thais may lose their jobs” or income in 2020. Schools have reopened and children are studying sitting at a safe distance, wearing face masks. Thai temples have closed to receive alms of food from the public and are cooking their own food inside the temples.
Thailand’s speculative success could be due to its culture and tradition which includes social distancing. Thais traditionally greet others with a prayer-like motion, with palm-pressed “wai” without any touch. Clinically, the country’s health care system is more regional, with low-cost medical treatment available throughout the nation. “That includes village-level rural health volunteers who even in non-pandemic times have their fingers on the health pulse of local communities,” said Reuters. According to the representatives of WHO, “more than 1 million village health volunteers monitored communities” in the country.
Vietnam has recorded just 450 confirmed cases with zero deaths so far. Like other countries in Southeast Asia, Vietnam also reacted quickly in early 2020. It cut down the visitors, especially from China, and traced the contacts of sick people.
The country recorded its first coronavirus case in January. A man from Wuhan living in Vietnam and his son were positive and then a woman who had traveled to Wuhan tested positive. Immediately, the patients were isolated and their close contacts were quarantined along with the lockdown of the area, checking the community transmission. The second wave was in March from the people who came down from Europe, the UK, and the US, and the government tracked and isolated the contacts and imposed a lockdown on the area and contained the transmissions.
Vietnam has a history of successfully fighting back pandemics – it was the first country recognized by the WHO to be SARS-free in 2003. People readily complied with government restrictions and followed the health guidelines.
Southeast Asia’s only landlocked country, Laos, with 20 confirmed cases has zero deaths from Covid-19. The lockdown was strictly imposed and followed in the tiny country.
The first case was reported in March and through aggressive testing of migrant workers and travelers entering the country, it managed to achieve “the lowest number of cases in Southeast Asia”. Laos’ 7 million citizens are now allowed to travel domestically, though foreign travelers are still not allowed in.
Despite sharing a 2,227-kilometer border with China, and sharing borders with Bangladesh, India, and Thailand, Myanmar with confirmed cases of 351, reported only 6 deaths. Myanmar’s border with China is extremely penetrable. Why didn’t visitors from China spread more outbreaks in Southeast Asia? Many people-to-people exchanges could have spread the infection. But that did not happen in Laos, or in Cambodia, or even in Myanmar, which has more Chinese traders and smugglers. Even the poorest countries like Myanmar adopted measures to curb the spread of the epidemic.
Migrant workers coming back from Thailand to their villages in Myanmar were strictly put in quarantine for 14 days in a hut outside their village. Moreover, more people live in the villages rather than in crowded cities. Their houses in rural areas have fans and windows rather than ACs, besides the traditional practice of palm-pressed “wai” greeting without any touch.
The government quarantined all travelers from abroad and canceled the traditional Burmese NEW Year celebrations and banned all mass gatherings till the end of April. “As the respiratory disease COVID-19 can be quickly spread in crowds, the public should not engage in ceremonies and festivals, including the celebration of Myanmar’s traditional water festival and construction of mandats,” the president’s office said in a statement. Mandats are temporary stages built for the performance of music and dance during festivals such as the water festival, which this year would have run from April 13 to 16.
Schools and cinemas were closed from March, while religious places urged believers to avoid prayers in mass gatherings.
With 141 confirmed cases, Cambodia reported zero deaths due to coronavirus. Experts say that it’s more due to long-established cultural habits than the government measures. In fact, when cruise ships were turned down entry by other countries, the Cambodian Prime Minister welcomed MS Westerdam with over 2,200 passengers. Luckily, no one aboard the cruise ship was infected.
Like any other Asian countries, Cambodia also successfully fought the epidemic because of their experience in fighting back other communicable diseases like malaria and dengue. Moreover, the country suspended visas for the people from the affected countries and ordered a 14-day quarantine for those exposed to the virus. It not only closed schools and entertainment clubs but also imposed restrictions on domestic travel and canceled celebrations of its traditional new year.
In addition, people traditionally greet each other without any touch. “Poor infrastructure, with bad and dusty roads” might have even become a blessing in disguise in Cambodia. People wear face masks to avoid dust even before the onset of the pandemic of Covid-19 which might have helped in containing the transmission.
On the culture and tradition side, the US photojournalist, Jade Sacker, notes that a scarecrow army is silently increasing around Cambodia. According to the belief, “enemy haunts the streets at night”, in the form of a spirit “to possess humans and spread disease”. When those evil “spirits see a scarecrow holding vigil in front of a house”, they will not dare to enter. These scarecrows are known as “ting mong”.
They are commonly seen across Cambodia, but “they haven’t been as omnipresent since the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979”. In 1979, people made effigies of Khmer Rouge soldiers, trapping their spirits inside scarecrows that were later burned in mass bonfires. They believe that the disease, which spread in the province after the blood bath of several cadres, was expelled by erecting scarecrows in front of houses. “The tradition has carried through generations, remerging in full force in response to the coronavirus pandemic,” Sacker said.
With 467 confirmed cases, Taiwan recorded only seven deaths from the epidemic for nearly 24 million citizens or 0.03 deaths per 100,000. The country is situated less than 180-kilometer from China and there is an incessant trip between the two nations. With more than 1 million Taiwanese working in China, Taiwan could have been easily banged by the coronavirus, but didn’t.
Taiwan had learned its lesson from the SARS outbreak in 2003. It was among one of the worst affected nations along with Hong Kong and China and over 150,000 people were quarantined on the island and lost 181 people to the infection.
While the crisis created by coronavirus is much stronger than the SARS, it helped Taiwan to prepare better and face it sternly. As coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, officials in Taiwan moved quickly to respond to the potential threat, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. While other countries were still debating whether to take action, Taiwan imposed a ban on travel from many parts of China, owing to its close proximity, ties, and transport links, and stopped cruise ships docking at the island’s ports. It also ordered severe punishments for those breaching home quarantine orders.
Moreover, the country stopped the export of face masks and increased the production of masks to ensure more domestic supply. The island conducted frequent and wide tests among its inhabitants. It also declared strict punishments for spreading misinformation about the virus. Now it’s in the position of donating 10 million face masks to the US and European countries.
Though the cases have surged in Singapore, the death toll is less than 0.1% of reported infections. With 51,531 confirmed cases, Singapore has seen 27 deaths. Singapore’s neglect of migrant workers, who live in overcrowded dormitories, caused the vast majority of its confirmed cases.
The outbreak of coronavirus, whatever its real cause is, shook the whole world. Different nations dealt with it using different methods, some succeeded and some failed. The countries which were familiar with the outbreak of SARS and other communicable diseases such as malaria and dengue acted fast. They dealt with Covid-19 strictly and succeeded in saving their inhabitants. There is no denying that luck, culture, tradition, social distancing also helped many, if not all, of the Southeast Asian countries to fight the infection.