ASEAN, India and the Covid-19 Pandemic

15 June 2021 Tridivesh Singh Maini, FDI Visiting Fellow

Unlike when it first struck a year ago, the recent Covid-19 wave has affected several ASEAN countries severely. While the absolute numbers of fatalities are not high in countries other than Thailand and Malaysia due to strict restrictions having been imposed, the slow rate of inoculation remains a concern.

 

Background

The ASEAN region was lauded last year for its handling of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Singapore and Vietnam performed especially well, registering very few cases and deaths while even other countries in the region, such as Indonesia and Thailand did a reasonable job in controlling the spread of the pandemic as a result of timely interventions, such as imposing strict lockdowns and terminating international flights.

 

Comment

Although there was a heightened resurgence of the Covid-19 pandemic in the ASEAN region over the last two months, around the same time as India suffered its own second wave, in recent days the number of cases seems to have dropped as a result of strict measures taken by governments. The delta variant of Covid-19 has been found in many ASEAN countries including Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia, while in Vietnam a mix of the British and Indian variants has surfaced, causing further lockdowns. Several countries have consequently re-imposed restrictions on international travel.

The Inoculation Drive

Countries like Singapore and Cambodia have performed better than many others in the region in terms of the number of people inoculated against the virus. The fact that there is less vaccine hesitancy in Singapore has benefitted that effort. Singapore signed purchase agreements with Pfizer and a number of other vaccine makers, including Sinovac. Cambodia, too, has procured vaccines from COVAX and also from China and India. Interestingly, the Cambodian President was given the India-manufactured Covishield inoculation in March 2021.

Countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, which have not fared well in terms of inoculating their populations on the other hand, have faced two problems. First, hesitancy against being inoculated has been a major problem in the Philippines, with specific scepticism about the Chinese antidote. Second, Vietnam and the Philippines have not formulated a robust strategy with regard to inoculating their citizens.

Debate With Regard to the Chinese Vaccine

On 4 June 2021, Vietnam’s Health Ministry approved the use of the Sinopharm antidote for emergency use. Vietnam has already secured 170 million doses so far from the WHO-backed Covax facility, AstraZeneca, Russia, Moderna and has signed an agreement with Pfizer-BioNTech for 31 million doses.

This is an important step by Hanoi, but it remains to be seen if its citizens will shed their scepticism of the Chinese vaccine, a scepticism that is also evident in the Philippines.

The WHO validated Sinovac for emergency use on 1 June 2021. According to a study in Indonesia, where Sinovac has been used, the Chinese vaccine is 98 per cent effective in preventing death and 96 per cent in preventing hospitalisation. The study was based on data from 120,000 healthcare workers who received the vaccine between January and March. That is in stark contrast to the results from Brazil that showed a much lower efficacy rate.

Commonalities in the Failure of ASEAN Countries and India

ASEAN countries that are lagging need to ramp up their inoculation rates and also address the issue of vaccine hesitancy. The second wave in India, which began in April, was not merely due to the lack of a prepared health infrastructure but, like many ASEAN countries, India’s tardiness in vaccinating its population. India’s dependence only on two vaccines, Covaxin and Covishield, has also been criticised. It was only after the onset of the third wave of the pandemic that India procured the Sputnik vaccine from Russia, while other American vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna may be allowed to be used in the future.

A Faster Rate of Vaccination is Required

In conclusion, the recent wave of Covid-19 in some ASEAN countries is likely to impact the region’s economies and ensure that international travel, which is essential for the region’s economic recovery, is impossible. While countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia are especially dependent upon tourism, the economies of Singapore, Vietnam and Philippines cannot bounce back without being connected to the rest of the world.

Apart from that, what is clearly evident is that countries like Singapore, along with countries like Cambodia, which despite very different economic conditions, are better placed to deal with the outbreak given their focus on vaccination even though their economies will be hit by the necessary stringent measures that have been taken to prevent the spread of the pandemic. A faster rate of vaccination, since ASEAN will be unable to afford domestic lockdowns for much longer and cannot afford to keep its borders closed for too long either, is necessary. It is important for countries to dispel vaccine-hesitancy, and also procure as many different types of vaccines as they can. While that is easier said than done, it should be the primary focus over the next few months in not just the ASEAN region but across the world. It also remains to be seen what kind of approach the ASEAN region will take with regard to resuming air connectivity with countries, especially India, where the Delta variant originated, once the current wave subsides given their close economic and people-to-people links.

It is also important that there be greater global co-operation in order to ramp up global vaccination rates and also for the ASEAN region and South Asia to work together and learn from each other’s experiences. While every country emphasises its own safety and seeks to prevent the spread of the disease, isolationism is certainly not the answer.

About the Author

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst and FDI Visiting Fellow.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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