COVID-19 Second Wave – Are Asian Countries Coping? Asia Thinkers Discuss Efforts to Control the Virus in Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines

After many months, COVID-19 continues to spread worldwide with a rising death toll and global economic devastation. Many countries are now experiencing a second wave and lockdowns and restrictions are being reintroduced to combat the rise of infections. In this series of interviews, Asia Thinkers will look at three countries, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines discussing with journalists, bloggers and academics on how they believe their countries have performed in containing the virus and what could be done better to prepare for a continuing pandemic. Comparisons will be made with how these countries handled the virus compared to the US and Europe.

Vietnam:

On 23rd January 2020, the first known case of COVID-19 in Vietnam was reported. As of 12 August 2020, the country had 866 confirmed cases, 399 recoveries, and 17 deaths. Despite a long border with China and a population of 97 million people, the Vietnam Government acted quickly and effectively using experience gained from the SARS outbreak in 2003.

Experts say that Vietnam has drastically flattened the coronavirus curve at a relatively low cost through early action, a targeted approach and strong political leadership, unlike other countries now seeing infections and deaths on a huge scale. But in August a second wave hit Vietnam and Da Nang became the epicentre. The Government responded with a Strategic approach, isolating and locking down the affected areas. 

Asia Thinkers spoke to Phoung, a research analyst based in Ho Chi Minh City to ask how well has the government managed the pandemic.

As a Vietnamese, I am very proud of our Governments response to COVID-19 with so few deaths; we were lucky that the Government reacted very quickly before the virus took hold. In January the government started a public information campaign which included announcements on social media, websites and even loudspeakers broadcasting in the streets. Many of us had experienced the SARs outbreak in 2003 and were happy to follow government regulations to wear masks, stay indoors and take part in testing programmes. I think the Vietnamese people adapted very quickly to the new lifestyle, but our main concern has been the loss of income as businesses and shops closed

In talking with my colleagues we all feel that the government has performed well during this crisis compared to the situation we see in other countries. Even though we had very few cases in Ho Chi Minh over the last few months we are still practising strict health measures and all rules are strictly enforced. Businesses are now reopening and the government is providing economic incentives. I feel the government needs to focus on developing our medical sector so we have sufficient resources to meet further outbreaks. There has recently been a second wave in Da Nang city caused by opening the city to domestic tourists. I don’t believe the government can be blamed for these second and third outbreaks as this is happening everywhere around the world. We can see the government was quick to close the city and identify the clusters through tracking and testing.

Which countries do you think handled the pandemic effectively and how is your country doing compared to western countries in Europe, America and Canada?

Vietnam imposed strict controls early and with a strict monitoring programme and extensive testing had only 17 deaths. This with a population of 95 million people is an amazing achievement in which all of us played a part. I haven’t followed much on western countries efforts but I believe the UK and USA were slow to react and have a high death rate  – especially the USA. It was reported here that the US death rate is nearly 1000 per day.

Will a vaccine return society to normal and with the continued presence of COVID-19 how will your government handle the next 18 months?

I don’t think a vaccine will completely return society in Vietnam to the way it was, although it will help to open up businesses, especially tourism. I am not optimistic that the virus will go away in the next 18 months and believe that the government will continue to lock down areas as the virus reoccurs, citizens will continue wearing masks and social distancing as outbreaks will continue to interrupt business, schooling and travel for a long time. Our countries response to COVID-19 is reported as one of Southeast Asia’s most successful programs so far. Our challenge will be to maintain this level of vigilance.

Photo: Hanoi

Thailand 

As of mid-August Thailand had 3,377 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 58 deaths. Initially, the government was sharply criticised for its lack of response. Since then, the country has shown remarkable resilience focusing on testing and contact tracing and public education. There have been no recorded cases of domestic transmission for over three months.  Thailand’s overall response, and the ability to curb infections, has led the World Health Organization to identify Thailand, alongside New Zealand, as a success story in dealing with the pandemic. But in spite of all this, many rural communities in Thailand are struggling to meet their basic needs and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated their situation.

Asia Thinkers spoke to an International Risk Management Consultant based in Bangkok who has been studying Thailand’s response to COVID-19 and was asked how well the government has managed the pandemic.

Thailand was the first country outside of China to report cases of COVID-19 in January 2020. It then very quickly implemented special measures to help stop its spread, putting in place first an extensive national lockdown, then a steady phased program of reopening of the economy over a period of months. It then prioritised its testing capacity and introduced thermal scanners and a QR code-based tracking app for use at almost all locations. The emphasis has been solidly placed on social measures such as public health, and personal hygiene initiatives, working from home and leaving home only when necessary, avoiding gatherings and crowded places. Thailand stressed quick detection early on in the pandemic, along with face masks and social distancing. The country has a very good medical culture and capacity for treating infectious diseases, with biomedical laboratory capacities that are superior to those of other countries in the region. Thailand ranks sixth in the Global Health Security Index out of 195 countries after the USA, the UK, Holland, Australia and Canada, an indicator of the country’s preparedness.

Health measures were enhanced early on in the pandemic at airports, government offices, restaurants, food stalls, hotels, petrol stations, shopping malls, and so on. The measures also covered public transport, including city buses and commuter vans, the sky train and underground, intercity buses, coaches, and trains. For these reasons, Thailand was probably one of the most well-prepared countries in the region and has maintained that throughout the crisis. The country also deployed large numbers of village health volunteers who monitored the spread of disease in the provinces, helping the government plan travel restriction policies. The population “consented” to universal masking. Health measures were implemented in a timely fashion and messaging by the government was firm, effective and well-managed.

Which countries in Asia do you think handled the pandemic effectively and how is your country doing compared to western countries in Europe, America and Canada?

Thailand has certainly handled the pandemic effectively, for the reasons given above, but so did Malaysia and Vietnam. Both have reported very low numbers (relatively speaking) and Vietnam had reported no deaths until the recent Da Nang outbreak. China, of course, has fared perhaps best of all, but that country probably implemented the most restrictive policies of all. Compared with the countries of Europe and the US, I would say that Asia has fared much better and has applied for the most part much more consistent measures, particularly the early adoption of acceptance of face masks.  

Will a vaccine return society to normal and with the continued presence of COVID-19 how will your government handle the next 18 months?

A vaccine will not return society to normal immediately, if at all, and I would prefer to see a greater awareness of the probability of the return of COVID-19 or other novel viruses which will require a robust policy response. Some governments and much of the private sector now understand this and will be better prepared “next time”. My guess is that vaccines or vaccines will be partially or temporarily successfully at best and that COVID-19 will be with us permanently. That’s what we should assume when preparing mitigation plans. The Thai Government, despite its effective response and relative success in responding to the virus, now faces an equally difficult challenge over the next 18 months, and that is avoiding a major recession due to the impacts of the pandemic on the economy, particularly the key sectors of tourism and manufacturing.

Photo: Bangkok Airport

The Philippines

The Philippines is now Southeast Asia’s worst-affected country and has surpassed Indonesia with more than 265,888 confirmed cases and almost 4,630 deaths with Manila having the highest nationwide spike.  The President implemented one of the world’s strictest lockdowns which confined most people to their homes from March 15 to June 1, but failed to contain the outbreak. Further lockdowns were put in place failing to stem the tide of rising infections which overwhelmed medical facilities and bringing economic activity to a standstill. Thai media referred to the Philippines as the “the land of COVID-19” and there is mounting criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration as being too slow to respond to the crisis and the Philippines has now been reduced to waiting on a vaccine.

Asia Thinkers spoke to Ana, a Manila resident, University researcher and sometimes blogger to ask how well has the government managed the pandemic.

It is no secret that the Philippines Government imposed one of the longest and strictest lockdowns out of all the Asian countries affected by COVID-19. Enforced by the military, officials downplayed the crisis and even so our infected numbers here in the Philippines surpassed China and Indonesia. The lockdown has been extremely strict and our economy has come to a halt as a result. The virus failed to be contained and the impact on our day to day life has been quite severe.

There has been a government focus on saving lives and looking after the health of the Filipino people (which is a positive development), but a high percentage of our people live hand-to-mouth where they cannot afford to stay at home for such long periods. The government had the opportunity to take action during the first lockdown but people were allowed to self-quarantine at home instead of being sent to isolation facilities, coupled with a slow testing programme, the impact is that we are always one step behind. Only now are health officials beginning to distribute masks to the public and improve the country’s contact tracing procedures. Our biggest failing has been not moving fast enough. Despite having daily coronavirus press briefings, the government was not communicating the importance of simple techniques such as handwashing, physical distancing and wearing a mask.

Which countries do you think handled the pandemic effectively and how is your country doing compared to western countries in Europe, America and Canada?

The Philippines could learn from surrounding Asian countries like Vietnam, Hong Kong and Thailand, all of which took swift action to contain the rate of infection and gradually re-open the economy. The seriousness of the situation in these countries was never downplayed by their government or the media, which has helped largely with public compliance. I would say that compared to Europe and the US, Asia has been most consistent with their measures and the compulsory wearing of facemasks has been largely successful and accepted, whereas the West appears to be resisting this requirement. The death rate is also much higher in comparison. The Philippines reportedly has one of the lowest deaths per one million of the population and according to WHO, the proportion of deaths has decreased to 3.4%.. While the infection rate does fluctuate, it is steadily declining here which does suggest that the country’s management of the situation is starting to improve.

Will a vaccine return society to normal and with the continued presence of COVID-19 how will your government handle the next 18 months?

The government has given us hope that life will ‘resume to normal’ as of December, but a lot is riding on the discovery of an effective vaccine. The government has reportedly struck a deal with Russia and we are pending accepting an offer for the Russian coronavirus vaccine. I do not believe that a vaccine will return society to normal overnight, it will take months if not years for the economy to re-build and for people to recover from the consequences of lockdown. There is also no guarantee that a vaccine will be successful. Our government faces many challenges of the next 18 months and will need to put appropriate measures in place if we are to start welcoming tourism back to the Philippines and avoid a major recession throughout the country. Ultimately, we moved too slowly and too late. All we can hope for is some strategy and stability as we try to repair the damage caused by COVID-19.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo: AP. Health workers wearing protective suits distribute free medicines and vitamins to residents of Caloocan city in the Philippines.

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