Of the large Southeast Asian economies, the Philippines and Indonesia continue to grapple with the highest absolute number of new daily coronavirus diagnoses, and the trend is still unclear as to whether either country has reached a plateau. Weak testing and contact tracing capabilities, as well as porous internal movement controls are considered the likeliest reasons for the persistent spread of the virus. In the case of the Philippines for instance, returning migrant workers from abroad and an ill-timed program to convince urban residents to move out of metro Manila seem to be driving the spread.
There will continue to be community transmission of the virus in these two countries for several more weeks, which will make them stand apart from other Southeast Asian nations. Despite these trends, the two countries are not yet showing signs and patterns that they will follow some of the worst-hit cities globally in terms of exponential spikes in cases or fatalities.
However, any re-tightening of movement or business restrictions in reaction to the rising numbers are likely to be highly localized and location-specific, implemented at the village level, rather than a return to the broad regional quarantine measures of the past few months — as public tolerance is low for further economic pain that has been the pronounced effect of these lock downs.
What is somewhat worrisome is that the worst trends are still in the more densely populated areas of the two countries, including their respective capitals, with effects that include the slow restoration of business activities, disruptions in the ability of people to return to work, and increased consumer caution.
For instance, in the case of Indonesia, the rising trend has primarily been in central Java and Jakarta. In the case of the Philippines, the main area of concern today is the island region called the central Visayas (Region 7), which includes the country’s second-largest metropolitan area, metro Cebu, with about 2.9 million people, against 13 – 14 million for metro Manila. Like Manila, the metropolitan Cebu area hosts BPO firms and export manufacturing zones.
More problematically, the rate of mechanical ventilator use in Cebu and its surrounding areas has doubled over the past month, from 20% to slightly above 50%. Cebu City has also used up 77% of the beds allocated for Covid-19, above the 70% threshold considered worrisome by the Department of Health. In Region 7, 30% of people being tested today are positive for the virus, indicating that testing capacity is seriously lagging the number of cases. Anecdotally, there are also reports that admissions are increasing in some metropolitan Manila hospitals, especially those that take in the lower-income classes.
In the case of Indonesia, the problem of hospital capacity seems to be less pronounced in the large cities; however, the local government of Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, reports that its hospitals are full and can no longer take new cases.
Despite these trends, the two countries are not yet showing signs and patterns that they will follow some of the worst-hit cities globally in terms of exponential spikes in cases or fatalities. Rather, the trend seems to be of persistent local transmission that is difficult to stop because testing rates are among the lowest in the region, which contributes to weak contact tracing (aside from the lack of competent personnel). As an example, in Indonesia, East Java governor Khofifah Indarparawansa said that in the city of Surabaya, contact tracers are able to track down only a handful of contacts for each confirmed case, compared to 20-25 in other areas.
The sense that both may be having problems containing the virus for any number of reasons relative to their more successful peers such Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia also means that these countries could be left out of the initial travel bubbles — whether for business or tourism — now being contemplated by not only between the Southeast Asian countries that have contained the virus but with Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and China.