ASEAN nations set Covid-19 example for wealthier counterparts

Girls in Hanoi, Vietnam, wearing face masks

Two of Asia’s major economies, Japan and South Korea, have donated $1 million to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) coronavirus relief fund. Although not part of ASEAN proper, the two powers are members of the ASEAN Plus Three trade bloc and have pledged the monies towards the purchase of medical supplies and funding a vaccine for the virus.

While the gesture will certainly be appreciated by ASEAN nations, it comes amidst increasing evidence that despite an initially robust response, South Korea is now struggling to contain both the virus and its economic and social consequences. Meanwhile, certain members of the 10-strong ASEAN organization – including Vietnam in particular, but also Brunei and Laos – have become international examples in how to successfully perform the impressive balancing act of tamping down cases whilst preventing economic implosion.

South Korea on the slide

South Korea initially won global plaudits for its handling of the pandemic. Unfortunately, the shine of Seoul’s apparent success has well and truly worn off. For one thing, the country’s extensive collection of personal data—including cell phone data, credit card transactions and CCTV footage—which allowed it to trace Covid-positive individuals’ contacts had serious knock-on effects. South Korean government websites publicly released detailed information about coronavirus patients’ lives—such as their addresses, their employers, and businesses they frequented. Unsurprisingly, this has wreaked havoc as online trolls have identified and hounded many of those who tested positive for the virus in the pandemic’s early months.

The country’s control of the virus has also slipped dangerously: a resurgence in the number of cases during August meant that by the start of September, the country had endured three-digit rises in new diagnoses for 20 days running, surpassing 20,000 cases in total.

Seoul’s response to this second wave has been met with dismay and disdain. In the short-term, they have shut down countless bars and clubs, which has proven to be the final straw for many small business owners and provoked a boom in liquidation services. With one of the highest rates of self-employment in the world (25% of the working populace), South Korea’s loss of 128,000 self-employed professionals this year is a grave blow to its economy.

The fallout is not just fiscal, though—South Korea’s mishandling of the pandemic has taken a toll on its citizens’ mental health. In the first six months of 2020, self-harm increased by 36%, while the number of suicides and people treated for depression climbed significantly—something that’s particularly concerning for a country which already has the highest suicide rate among OECD nations. Experts have warned that the South Korean government is not providing adequate resources—and it’s extremely questionable whether one of the government’s main initiatives to help boost mental health, passing out pet plants to people in quarantine, will be enough to solve the issue.

The government’s long-term solutions have not fared much better, potentially making an already challenging situation even worse. Critics claimed that the government’s plans to train 4,000 new doctors over the next 10 years would only serve to dilute the workforce and would fail to bolster insufficient infrastructure. Consequently, thousands of civilians have attended protest rallies (potentially facilitating the spread of the disease) and thousands of doctors have gone on strike (potentially endangering the lives of those already affected). The fall from grace for a country once lauded for its pandemic response has been a staggering one.

Shining lights across ASEAN

Of course, South Korea is far from alone in struggling to deal with the effects of this unprecedented affliction; the USA and the UK have experienced a particularly tough time since the outbreak, and developing countries in Asia have also been hit hard. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) predicts that the region’s GDP will contract by 0.7% in 2020 for the first time in over 50 years.

However, there are some striking exceptions to that rule of thumb. Quite remarkably, Vietnam’s growth is expected to continue at a slightly slowed 4.8% this year, before recovering to 6.8% next year. Even more impressively, Vietnam has enjoyed this economic solidity while escaping the worst ravages of the virus.

At the start of August, Vietnam was the largest country in the world to still not have recorded any deaths due to Covid-19. At the time of writing, this country of 97 million people had still only experienced just over 10,000 cases and a mere 128 deaths. How was the crisis so skillfully navigated? Via swift and decisive action, which may have seemed extreme at the time but has proven to be incredibly prudent since.

The government first settled for closely monitoring its long border with China, before closing it, while quarantine measures were introduced for all Covid patients from day one. Those patients – and all medical staff treating them – were centralized in a single hospital. And while a national lockdown was never introduced, the authorities rapidly reacted to burgeoning outbreaks: as recently as late July, the discovery of four new cases in tourism hotspot Da Nang prompted the evacuation of all 80,000 non-residents.

While Vietnam might be the poster child for the region’s coronavirus containment efforts, they’re not alone. Laos has also been praised for its “exemplary” policies by the World Health Organization (WHO), while the tiny nation of Brunei has reaped the benefits of its early response. Second only to Singapore among ASEAN nations in testing per capita, the country’s decision to restrict vital tourism from China at the risk of retaliation, paid off, with Brunei only recording three Covid deaths to date.

Lessons to be learned

Naturally, Brunei’s vast wealth relative to its population means that it’s far better equipped to sustain the economic shocks caused by Covid-19 than some of its counterparts, but the lessons of Laos and Vietnam show that it is possible to successfully tread the coronavirus tightrope without sacrificing public health or national coffers.

Countries continually struggling to keep the pandemic at bay would do well to follow the blueprint that has led to these ASEAN success stories. That means dispensing with headline-grabbing but hollow incentives such as South Korea’s scramble for new doctors, and instead putting in place a comprehensive contingency plan with compassion, foresight and unwavering resolution.