July 23, 2021

Asia

SOUTHEAST ASIA: What to watch over the next two weeks

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 5 mins)
  • Indonesia is showing signs of epidemiological improvement, but the data nationally are uneven and there is a risk that the gradual easing of community restrictions planned for 26 July may be too early.
  • Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam are in roughly the same situation of still attempting to turn the corner on their current outbreaks, but Malaysia’s vaccination campaign may be an early advantage.
  • The Philippines has so far avoided an outbreak, but with new cases inching upward and reports of the delta variant in communities, the next two weeks will have to be watched.

Indonesia’s national new case rates have been trending downward the past few days, which may be an early indication that the current wave has already peaked and that the tighter restrictions are now manifesting in the recent data. Anecdotal reports also allow for some optimism. In Jakarta, for instance, the number of average new cases has dropped by more than half to roughly 6,500 over the past few days from 13,000 during the second week of July. Similar downward trends can be seen in the three provinces of the main island of Java, which together with Jakarta account for more than half of the country’s population. Teneo sources in Indonesia have been reporting high levels of compliance with social distancing and stay-at-home mandates. On one aspect, which is fatalities per day, the trend is still rising, which may be the expected lag from the peak of new infections earlier in the month.

However, the data are not unambiguous. The drop in cases on the island of Java has flattened, while other large provinces such as South Sulawesi and North Sumatra show only a minimal decline in the average number of daily cases and have not established any clear reversal. Combined with the national positivity rate hovering at 30%, with all but one province below 20%, the possibility of the situation worsening in these provinces persists. Indonesia will therefore require monitoring through early August due to apprehension that the gradual relaxation of movement curbs starting 26 July is premature and with the still uncertain effects of this week’s celebration of Idul Adha. The government’s earlier stated goal of reducing total new daily cases to roughly 10,000 as a condition for removing the emergency community restrictions (PPKM Daurat) may still take some time.

Better than the rest

The other Southeast Asian countries that are also now experiencing their worst outbreaks since the start of the pandemic — Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam — have not yet established a similar downward turn in their case or fatality numbers. And it may be later this month or in early August when they can register improvements.

While much of the media focus has been on Indonesia, Malaysia has had the worst outbreak in Southeast Asia — its per capita daily new case and fatality numbers a week ago exceeded the worst of India’s spring surge. Also, unlike Indonesia, where Jakarta seems to be leading the country in turning the curve from growing daily case numbers, Malaysia’s most populated state, Selangor (which also contains Kuala Lumpur), is still showing a volatile trend in daily new cases. The government is attempting a balancing act — holding out the promise of a phased reduction in restrictions to states that meet hospitalization, case, and vaccination thresholds, which has allowed for the relaxation of some measures outside the economically important Klang Valley.

Thailand continues to post increases in its daily cases, reaching a record for its second consecutive day on 22 July. Almost half of the new cases are in the greater Bangkok area. Restrictions could further tighten in the coming days if the numbers continue to increase. The difference between the neighboring countries is that Malaysia has been able to accelerate its vaccination rate in recent weeks, becoming among the fastest in the world. More than 30% of its residents has received at least one dose, and over the past week, it has been vaccinating about 1.25% of its population daily. In comparison, public frustration over the vaccination campaign is growing in Thailand, especially with reports that the government had under-ordered from Siam Bioscience, the local manufacture of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Relief may come later in August, behind Malaysia.

In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), where the current outbreak has been concentrated, continues to see an upward trend in cases, with recent movement and business curbs likely not yet manifesting in the data. In addition to HCMC, the highest numbers are being posted in its neighboring southern provinces of Binh Duong, Long An, and Dong Nai, and together they account for the bulk of the country’s new cases. Unlike the rest of the large countries in the region, it is unclear whether Vietnam has abandoned the zero-case goals of last year. Therefore, Hanoi will likely continue with its strict movement and business curbs and attempt to isolate HCMC and its neighboring provinces from the rest of the county to reduce the possibility of a larger outbreak, and the effects could become evident by early August. A major constraint for Vietnam is that its vaccination progress is among the worst in the region because of an uncharacteristic policy miscalculation that resulted in the slow procurement of vaccines and an over-reliance on domestic development. Hanoi has little choice now but to accelerate its external purchases or license domestic production — but the benefit in terms of vaccine supplies being available in volume is still several weeks, if not a few months away.

The Philippines has so far avoided a new outbreak, especially with the delta variant. However, cases are slowly trending upward after having dropped from the last spike in March. Therefore, there is a risk of numbers worsening over the next few weeks — especially as there are reports of more delta variant cases being discovered in the community. Should a trend take hold, it could manifest before the end of July.

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