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“Crossed the ocean, but sank in the mighty Mekong river:” COVID-19 in a diverse Southeast Asia

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Chris Mantillas
Chris earned his Ph. D in Community Development at the College of Public Affairs and Development (CPAF), University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB). He is the former Director for Quality Management Department (QMD) and Academic Research Department (ARD) of Colegio de San Juan de Letran Calamba in Laguna province, a suburban area south of Manila. He is now a Special Lecturer at the Department of Political Economy, Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) in Manila. His specialization and research interests include community development, quality management, local economic development, microfinance, urbanization studies, transition economies, and international relations. You may get in touch with the author through his e-mail: christophermantillas@gmail.com.

On January 8, 2020, a 61-year old Chinese traveler from the city of Wuhan in Hubei Province, China arrived at Suvarnabhumi International in Bangkok, Thailand. This female traveler would eventually become the first person outside of China to be detected with a new strain of the infectious coronavirus disease which was given the official name COVID-19 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The same case was also the first COVID-19 case in all of Southeast Asia. The virus, that caused this disease, SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2), can spread quickly through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when infected individual coughs or sneezes (World Health Organization, 2020). 

On March 11, 2020, the WHO finally declared that the spread of COVID-19 has reached the pandemic status. At that time, there are already 118,000 cases in 114 countries with 4,291 fatalities related to this new infectious disease. In Southeast Asia, the number of infections stood at 416 cases with the following details:

Table 1. COVID-19 Cases in Southeast Asia, as of March 10, 2020

CountryNumber of CasesTotal Deaths
Thailand 531
Viet Nam310
Source: WHO Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), Situation Report-50, March 10, 2020

The severity of the pandemic became a global concern especially for countries that are near the epicenter of the virus. Succeeding events tell us that Italy and Iran emerged as the new epicenters of COVID-19 after China. However, due to geographical proximity, there is still so much to worry about the potential spread of this disease to China’s neighboring countries.  

China shares extensive land borders with several countries in mainland Southeast Asia which are also known as the Indo-Chinese peninsula. Its terrestrial border with Vietnam stretches for about 1,297 kilometers; with Lao People’s Democratic Republic at 475 kilometers; and with Myanmar at 2,129 kilometers (The World Factbook CIA, 2020).  Cross-border tourism and trading between China and these countries have been thriving over the years. During my recent travel in Xiengkhouang Province in northern Laos, I was able to witness the impact of China’s influence on the infrastructure of this area including signage that acknowledges the support of the government of China on the construction of government buildings and public parks. Passenger buses coming from the southern Chinese city of Kunming en route to some other Laotian cities also pass by this area.  The same active cross-border activities are also taking place in China’s borders with Myanmar and Vietnam.

    Figure 1. Map of Southeast Asia

On top of these land borders are the extensive aviation linkages between major Chinese cities with air transportation hubs of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member states. In fact, before the pandemic, millions of Chinese tourists have been flocking popular holiday destinations such as Boracay in the central Philippines, Bali in Indonesia, Phuket in Thailand, Hoi An in Vietnam, Siem Reap in Cambodia, and Mandalay in Myanmar, just to name a few. In 2019 alone, around 60 million Chinese travelers visited the region which is almost half of the 133.1 million total number of visitors the region received last year (Global Data, 2020). Given its close geographical proximity with China, it is only natural to think that the new strain of coronavirus may reach the 10-member ASEAN states in no time and cause massive infections among its people. 

After 8 months it eventually became a reality. As I am writing this article, the total number of COVID-19 cases in ASEAN member states stands at 370,899. The Philippines has the most number of cases with 161,253. This is followed by Indonesia with 139,549, and Singapore with 55,747. 

            Figure 2. COVID-19 Cases in Southeast Asia, August 16, 2020.

On the other hand, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam which we mentioned as having extensive land borders with China are among the countries with the least number of cases with a combined total of only 1,358 infections. Notably, the other two Indo-China countries (Thailand and Cambodia) have a combined total of only 3,650 cases. Brunei has only 142 cases- the only non-Indo Chinese country in this list of ASEAN member states. There are more COVID-19 cases in Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines than in China’s neighboring mainland southeast Asian countries.   

Several questions may be raised based on these data. What are the steps taken by these Indo-China countries to contain the number of COVID-19 cases? The answer lies in several key areas.

Vietnam for instance was cited by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for its “cost-effective containment strategy” which is partly driven by their previous experience with an earlier strain of coronavirus- the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS outbreak in 2003. Through the coordinated efforts of the government and grass-roots organizations and with transparent and effective communications with its citizens, the country became one of the first to lift all local containment measures. The IMF calls this the “whole-of-society fight.” The authorities acted swiftly by responding with a health risk assessment as soon as China reported to the WHO about the several cases of unusual pneumonia on December 31, 2019. Their national plan to combat the pandemic was already being implemented as early as January 2020 with airport health screenings, physical distancing, travel bans, and quarantine policies for visitors.

Thailand’s COVID-19 response is also another success story so far in this global fight against the pandemic. Yes, it is another Indo-China country without a terrestrial border with China but with extensive road and aviation networks with one another. Despite having the first COVID-19 case outside of China as mentioned at the beginning of this article, this country was able to contain its number of cases at a very “manageable number.”  With a similar “whole-of-society approach” and ramped up testing, the country has reported only 3,377 cases as of August 16, 2020. According to the Lowy Institute, Thailand began acting as early as January 3, 2020, or only a few days after China confirmed the detection of unusual pneumonia in Wuhan. Airport arrivals were screened for fever, and physical distancing and the wearing of face mask in public places were encouraged. A strict lockdown was imposed on March 26 and was lifted in May.   

One common strategy by these two countries is their emphasis on prioritizing public health over other concerns. Both countries have their respective vibrant economies with Thailand having a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) output of 529.17 billion dollars. However, it is expected to contract by 6.5% this 2020 due to the severe disruption of the coronavirus on its economic activities. However, despite the global pandemic, Vietnam may become the best performer in the ASEAN region with an increase of 4.1% in its GDP output for 2020 after producing a GDP output of 262 billion dollars in 2019 (World Bank, 2020). Recent analysis shows that the success of these two countries in containing the spread of COVID-19 may also allow them to revive their stalled economic activities. The Royal Thai Government was already in the implementation stage of its stimulus package to help its citizens and this amounts to 15% of their GDP (United Nations, 2020). 

The “whole-of-society approach” employed by the two countries is another effective tool in the combat against the spread of the virus. Vietnam is a communist state, and Thailand is a constitutional monarchy being governed by a royalist and a hardliner from the Thai military. They are not among the most democratic states in Asia but it appears that during the height of the pandemic, the transparent communications coming from these governments earned the support of their people. In Vietnam, a well-coordinated media approach earned the support of the public, and in Thailand, a million village health workers volunteered early on to support their government in the prevention, detection, and reporting of COVID-19 cases.   

While the other ASEAN [PxxxT] countries are battling the virus, notably the archipelagic states of the Philippines and Indonesia, perhaps the region may learn some lessons from these two countries where the mighty Mekong River flows. COVID-19 is an invisible enemy, an infectious deadly disease that must be taken with a sense of urgency, transparent communications, inclusive governance, and genuine social responsibility among the different sectors of society. These countries are setting the example that in a “black swan event” like a pandemic one need not be in a democratic state to practice all of these strategies.   

About the latest number of COVID-19 cases, it seems that the virus was able to “successfully crossed” the South China Sea and the West Philippine Sea and was able to reach the defenseless islands of the Philippines and Indonesia. Was this caused by the early denials or late responses made by their respective governments? A separate article is needed to assess their situations along with the other ASEAN member states. But at this point, it seems that the virus is “getting drowned at the mighty Mekong River” at least for the benefit of the people of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar with the first two countries discussed in this article leading the way. 

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