Amid concerns over increased authoritarianism in Southeast Asia, countries with strict virus policies stand ready to emerge from the crisis faster and stronger than their peers.
By Zachary Frye
With some observers, especially in the West, lamenting the prospects of increased authoritarianism in the wake of the virus, a hard truth may be emerging that governments that are able to organize fast responses and easily enact emergency measures are likely better suited to combat viral outbreaks.
Several countries in ASEAN, like Thailand and Vietnam, are getting international attention for their handling of the coronavirus outbreak. While Vietnam’s success is particularly noteworthy, with only 327 confirmed cases and zero deaths, both countries have so far successfully contained the virus and are gradually starting to open their economies.
Although these countries’ approaches are not identical and their government systems differ, both employed comprehensive public containment measures to reduce transmission.
Thailand closed most businesses, employed a nighttime curfew and shut down most international and inter-provincial travel while relying on its strong public health system to care for all confirmed cases. Vietnam, meanwhile, utilized heavy contact tracing and mobilized its resources and personnel to stop the virus from spreading.
While not everything went smoothly, with large-scale unemployment and deep economic uncertainty, these countries and several others in the region are now in a position to benefit from a more secure post-outbreak existence.
The benefits of strong control measures go beyond prevention of transmissions. Governments that are able to contain the virus and open their countries safely are not only saving lives—they will likely be the ones able to reset their economies most effectively. Notwithstanding some of the draconian techniques used to stop the virus, several countries in ASEAN look ready to take the next steps.
Democracy should be championed, but so should reflections on mobilisation and social cohesion
Once the virus started to spread across Southeast Asia, many governments reacted swiftly. There is a legitimate worry that authoritarian regimes in the region are using the virus as a pretext for tighter control, but there is also a clear epidemiologic trend: many ASEAN nations have so far managed to prevent large-scale transmissions from taking hold in their countries.
Public policy analysts have already started comparing countries’ responses and gauging their effectiveness. Preliminary evidence suggests that societies able to mobilise and work together to reduce the virus’s impact might be better suited to handle the crisis.
This doesn’t mean that societies with anti-democratic governments are the only societies that can pull off such cohesion, but it does throw the drawbacks of immobilised democracy and fragmented society into sharp relief.
Vietnam looks set to emerge stronger than some after tough virus protocols
Lessons from Vietnam may be most relevant in this discussion. The one-party state was able to draw upon its social influence and marshal considerable resources and personnel to the point that the virus was virtually wiped out within its borders.
While some of Vietnam’s techniques, such as strict quarantine rules and intrusive contact tracing, would likely be unrealistic in many democratic societies around the world, their effectiveness is hard to ignore.
In April, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) predicted that despite the impact of COVID-19, Vietnam should continue to sustain itself as one of the fastest-growing economies in the region.
According to the ADB, if the virus is contained in the long-term, Vietnam’s economy could grow over 6% in 2021—on par with previous years.
By contrast, countries still battling the virus face a more uncertain economic future. In Indonesia, where transmissions are rising, supply chain disruptions could lead to a domino effect of unwelcome financial developments as supply and demand imbalances destabilise prices, potentially leading to prolonged economic hardship.
Indonesia, the largest democracy in the region, seems to have suffered from the doubt and hesitancy over virus protocols that plagued other countries around the globe.
Instead of implementing national lockdowns like some other governments in the region, Jakarta has employed targeted social restrictions with limited public enforcement, a move that some observers have criticised as “lacklustre and uncoordinated.”
“There must be some supervision,” argued Dr. Daeng Faqih, the president-elect of the Indonesian Doctors Association. “This is an emergency situation and it would be too long to wait for the change in public behaviour.”
So far, over 23,000 people have contracted the virus in Indonesia, second in the region only to Singapore, which saw its early success in combating the virus succumb to waves of transmissions reportedly stemming from cramped conditions in migrant worker dormitories.
The trajectory of a country’s caseloads are determined by a host of complicated factors, but a society’s ability to decisively restrict behaviours that lead to transmission is crucial in stopping its spread.
This doesn’t mean one-party rule or anti-democratic power grabs are a political ideal, but it does open the door for a sober review of the shortcomings of more open systems in times of crisis.
Success in containing the virus is important, but ASEAN countries shouldn’t get complacent
In Thailand, with just over 3,000 recorded cases and 57 deaths due to the virus, the government is slowly lifting restrictions while carefully ensuring they can be re-imposed if deemed necessary.
On May 26, Bangkok extended its emergency decree until at least the end of June. The decree gives the prime minister power to easily enact or rescind emergency provisions such as curfews and or policies over public gatherings.
In light of the extension of power, some are criticising the move as setting a dangerous precedent. A spokesperson for Pheu Thai, a main opposition party in Thailand, characterized the extension as “an unnecessary use of power.”
There may be good reasons to push back. Although the Thai government should be applauded for efforts that save lives, its success doesn’t mask the downfalls of a system where patronage and anti-democratic tendencies are the main drivers of political life.
Many Thais and others in the region are suffering from the economic and social fallout from the virus, with few recognized avenues to express their disapproval.
The government implemented a limited 5,000 baht (US$156) per month relief package, but a botched rollout and uncertainty over sustained funding have put many people out to dry. Those in the informal sector, a significant portion of the Thai workforce, are especially vulnerable.
Similar to Vietnam, Thailand may now be in a relatively good position to safely open its society and economy without unnecessary loss of life, but this doesn’t change the fact that many of its citizens are beholden to systems over which they have little say.
Success in combating the virus should be recognized, as should the need to swiftly mobilise in times of crisis. Over the long term, however, a system that balances the needs of the many with the needs of its most downtrodden will be the one that sustains public legitimacy and provides the most for its citizens.