- Governments appear relatively confident that they can avoid a major outbreak in the next few months.
- In terms of managing the pandemic, the focus will be on the continued observance of health protocols, gradually expanding the size of allowed public gatherings and monitoring foreign transmission risk.
- Indonesia and the Philippines are reopening, but the persistence of local transmission appears to be negatively affecting economic confidence.
This week, the Malaysian government expanded the coverage of its movement restrictions to nine of the country’s 13 states and took the further step of closing schools — reflecting the concerns of the only Southeast Asian country that has seen a recent and marked increase in new Covid-19 cases. It is also making it difficult for the government to call early elections despite the uncertain status of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, because the state election in Sabah at the end of September is now viewed domestically as having contributed to the recent spike.
But Malaysia is the region’s exception for now. Elsewhere, countries are taking gradual steps to further relax restrictions. Even the Philippines and Indonesia, which have found it difficult to bring down domestic transmission to the near-zero levels achieved by their peers, are steadily moving towards reopening. Since June, restrictions on workplaces and public transportation have been eased across the region, albeit at different rates (Vietnam the fastest and the Philippines the slowest); essential businesses can operate at full capacity in most countries. In almost all Southeast Asia, domestic travel is now also possible, except for the Philippines, where inter-provincial travel is cumbersome and requires testing and police clearances.
One driver of confidence is that Southeast Asia did not have the explosive outbreaks experienced elsewhere in the world, despite the uneven capabilities throughout the region, its dense population centers and the high levels of travel between its member economies and China. While this was attributed to the quick governmental response in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as the advanced healthcare system of Singapore, the reason is less clear for Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines—three countries with weak institutions and limited healthcare capacities. Local speculation about why the three fared relatively well ranges from warm temperatures and the predominance of natural ventilation in most homes to demographics, possible cross-immunity and adherence to social distancing rules, but not have been proven.
The current focus
Throughout the region for the next few months ahead of vaccine deployment, three areas will continue to be managed by policymakers to avoid a resurgence.
- Standardizing public health protocols. Mask use is widespread in Southeast Asia, both in public and the workplace, due to the combination of mandatory rules at the municipal and national levels, and the high social pressure to comply. In the Philippines, face shields are also required in public. Most establishments also require that their guests be subjected to temperature checks and fill out a contact-tracing form, either on paper or through their mobile phones (although weak contact tracing will make this less effective in some countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia). Singapore is using a Bluetooth-based digital proximity tracker in both app and device form to inform the public if they have been in contact with people eventually found to be positive for Covid-19; its use will be mandatory by December for people attending high risk events and public gatherings.
- Only gradually reducing restrictions on public gatherings. The ban on gatherings that has been in place since the start of the pandemic remains the most entrenched among public restrictions and are only cautiously being unwound. Singapore limits to five the number of people who can gather in homes or restaurants, and up to 50 in public venues such as museums. Jakarta also has a five-person limit, while gatherings are banned in the Philippines except for religious rites, where participation is also still capped at a certain percentage. In most cities in Vietnam, gatherings are restricted to thirty people and quickly reduced in case of transmission threats. The rules around public gatherings also manifest differently on restaurants (mostly allowed with some capacity and group restrictions), nighttime entertainment venues such as karaoke clubs and bars (allowed in Thailand but prohibited in several countries), and cinemas (open with capacity restrictions in most Southeast Asia but closed in the Philippines).
- Monitoring imported transmission. This remains the key concern for most governments, especially with the recent waves in Europe and the US, from which they expect not only some business travel but also residents returning for the holidays. The large European tourist flows to popular beach destinations seem highly unlikely this year. Most inbound travel is still restricted to nationals, residents and some exemptions for businesses and technical workers. Singapore is the most advanced in building travel corridors, allowing inbound tourists from countries with no local transmission and requiring them only to undergo testing upon arrival without extended quarantine. Thailand has started to experiment with extended-stay tourists but there is some local resistance and skepticism that the scheme, which involves 14-day quarantines (although the government is soon cutting it to 10), can attract enough participants.
The challenges: Managing public fears
Google’s mobility data on the Philippines and Indonesia show retail and recreational foot traffic in Jakarta and Manila that are substantially lower compared to other regional centers. This likely reflects how their citizens remain wary of remaining in public places for long and contracting the disease because of persistent community transmission. For the Philippines, its weak mobility profile is likely exacerbated by stringent rules that include prohibitions on those below 15 years old and above 60 years old from going to the malls or to restaurants, as well as the continued closure of cinemas — all of which discourage families. This may allow for some catch-up recovery in the Philippines should it align with regional practices.
The following chart shows retail and recreational traffic in the major cities compared to the pre-Covid baseline.
The contrast can be seen in Thailand and Vietnam, where retail foot traffic recovered after the virus had been brought under control and restrictions were eased. Singapore had to deal with a mishandled outbreak in its migrant worker population but is now confident it has the situation under control. Malaysia’s progress has been set back by its recent spike. These countries believe they can effectively respond with calibrated measures should a resurgence occur, and throughout Southeast Asia governments have enough political capital to pursue lock downs in worst-case scenarios. Singapore therefore plans on transitioning to what it calls Phase 3, which would further increase the allowed size of public gatherings to eight people and, later, possibly even allow nighttime entertainment. Gatherings in public venues for events such as weddings may eventually be allowed to have more than 50 people as long as they are maintained in different zones.
Policymakers may also attempt to shift public expectations away from full eradication of Covid-19 until a vaccine arrives to tolerating some local transmission as their economies reopen, with the assurance their healthcare systems are ready to contain any nascent resurgence. This is already happening in Singapore. Thailand could be next although even limited cases can still spark fear; however, there is already some domestic criticism that policymakers are allowing unrealistic and economically difficult zero-case expectations to continue.