May 20, 2021

Asia

SOUTHEAST ASIA: Infection trends put travel plans on edge, spur vaccine search

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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Report Contents

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( 6 mins)
  • The countries to watch are Malaysia (community transmission), Indonesia (possible post-Idul Fitri spike) and Thailand (vaccine deliveries by Siam Bioscience).
  • Thailand will continue with its phased tourism reopening plan, with a milestone scheduled for July, but public confidence in the timetable may decline if vaccine supplies remain limited and new case numbers remain volatile.
  • Vaccination has become a more urgent priority for most governments, compared with several months ago.

Malaysia and Thailand hit their highest daily new case numbers this week. However, one difference between the two countries is that a substantial portion of Thailand’s new case counts are traceable to prisons, while Malaysia’s are now viewed as clusters of unlinked community transmission. Excluding the prison cases, therefore, Thailand’s numbers are more stable compared to Malaysia’s and possibly may even be declining, which is allowing some provinces to relax their restrictions.

The trend had caused Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to tighten movement and business restrictions last weeks, as some states were reporting that they were close to reaching ICU capacity. But the last few days’ numbers are generating speculation of even stricter controls being imposed soon — similar to the first (and strictest) movement control order (MCO1.0) last year when the pandemic was new and fears were highest. The current debate is whether to bring the state of Selangor, which accounts for about a quarter of Malaysian GDP, under MCO1.0.

Thailand’s healthcare system is less overstretched and consequently restrictions are less severe, but several cities have already set up field hospitals. Of particular concern is the outbreak in the country’s largest and most crowded jails, which is now causing the government to consider releasing up to 50,000 inmates, representing 16% of the prison population. Another focus is workers’ camps, of which there are several hundred in Bangkok alone, some with up to a 1,000 residents; the movements of such workers are now being curtailed — which could affect construction projects. These two at-risk populations are the key targets of testing today.

Meanwhile, the recent outbreaks in Cambodia and Laos seem to be easing, reducing the risk of an immediate healthcare crisis in these two countries. Indonesian new case rates are stable, but Jakarta is watching for a possible spike through early June following the mass homecoming travel that is customary with the Idul Fitri holidays. The Philippines has established a downward trend in new cases; thus, Manila, which this week had eased the restrictions of the past two months, is likely to continue with its current policy for the near term.

Consequences

Vaccinations and lockdowns: The recent outbreaks and news of Western economies reopening are raising the political demand within ASEAN countries from businesses and the middle class for their respective vaccination programs to be accelerated — with governments promising that supply will improve in the next 2-3 months. Since last year, many of the region’s governments have believed that they could hunker down with existing Covid-19 containment strategies, maybe coax some growth out of their economies through stimulus and the gradual relaxation of restrictions, and along with the rest of the world emerge from the pandemic through a vaccination process. However, uncertainties in the vaccine supply, the persistence of the infection threat through variants or overconfidence (or pandemic fatigue), and the speed at which the US and Western economies are vaccinating and appear to be making their own exits, have been shifting the narrative.

Vaccination has now become a much higher priority and the political tolerance for broad lockdowns given the possibility of multiple variant-driven waves has strongly dissipated. For this reason, governments are now reassuring their citizens that vaccines are on their way in volume by the second half of 2021, to stave off discontent at the higher numbers and slow vaccination rate. However, vaccine supply chains will likely continue to be fraught with uncertainty for several months more because of delayed procurement or disruptions in the shipment of existing orders. Even Vietnam is attempting to buy more external vaccines, as its own domestically developed one may be ready only in the fourth quarter.

Thais will be watching the scheduled start of deliveries in June of the vaccines locally produced by Siam Bioscience Co., the licensee of AstraZeneca. Months ago, the opposition had criticized the seeming over-reliance on the firm, which is fully owned by the monarchy, for most of country’s supply. Should deliveries fall far below target, criticism of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha will increase, although the political fallout will be limited. So far, only Sinovac’s CoronaVac has been used in Thailand’s current vaccination campaign. But the government is now also considering the other recognized Western, Russian and Chinese vaccines. In the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, the private sector is attempting to compensate for the slow vaccine rollout for industries by procuring and distributing its own supplies.

Travel plans on edge: Although the data are still preliminary and inconclusive, Covid-19 variants and cross-border travel (both international and internal) are seen as playing a role in the current spike. Land border crossings have already been tightened in many parts of continental Southeast Asia and even within countries. The Malaysia-Singapore reciprocal green lane used for business and official travel has been suspended. The Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble scheduled for 26 May has been postponed, at least through mid-June. And it has caused a minor diplomatic row between Singapore and India, after New Delhi’s chief minister referred to the risk of a “Singapore variant.”

On the other hand, even though Indonesia’s vaccination rate has dropped, the government is still aiming to have the bulk of Bali’s population vaccinated by the third quarter to allow travel for travel bubbles to the island. The Philippines has no immediate plans to expand inbound tourist travel.

Where the current spike is generating the greatest uncertainty is Thailand, which had as recently as March been planning a phased reopening of inbound tourism with a major milestone in July — that of allowing fully vaccinated foreign tourists to travel to Phuket without need of quarantine. If successful, the program would then be extended to the other major tourist destinations of Krabi, Phang-nga, Chiang Mai and Pattaya by October. Finally, at the start of 2022, any vaccinated foreign tourist would be allowed into the whole of Thailand without any quarantine requirement. The government is sticking to the timeline, and Phuket this week restarted its vaccination campaign. Its goal is to have 70% of the island’s population vaccinated by July, from the current 22%, at a rate of 14,000 vaccinations per day.

More by Bob Herrera-Lim