Countries start to ease social distancing restrictions: How they covered it

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A round-up of how the media covered Vietnam and other countries’ decisions to ease social distancing restrictions put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Editorial

Vietnam’s control of the coronavirus pandemic has been well documented. After reporting no new infections for seven straight days, its government announced the easing of social distancing in almost all areas. Malaysia and Thailand are gradually allowing some businesses to re-open while for other countries, it will be much longer before they can get back to normal.

Vietnam continues to earn praise for its control of the pandemic

Channel News Asia reported that with total cases standing at just 268 – none of them fatal – Vietnam’s government eased restrictions after its citizens cooperated with strict quarantine and contact tracing rules. It focused on how people in the community had helped. One of them, Nguyen Trinh Thang, highlighted the mentality, saying, “We follow the guidance from our government that ‘fighting the pandemic is like fighting our enemy’.”

Malaysia’s The Star commented that Vietnam was now looking for economic recovery after having “flattened its infection curve with a sledgehammer”. The paper quoted Fred Burke, a Hanoi-based lawyer, who predicted that the country would recover, based on its record of rebuilding after previous crises such as SARS, bird flu and financial crashes. “They’ve learned to act fast and thoroughly,” he said. “The country is well suited to bounce back.”

There was at least one note of criticism, however, as Tran Anh Tu, writing for VN Express, questioned whether social distancing had been carried out consistently across the country. Hours before the lockdown was lifted, he wrote: “My point here is that the diversity of our lives and inconsistency in interpreting social distancing regulations have fueled (sic) public concern of the implied benefits.”

The situation in Thailand is changing day-by-day

New cases are dropping in Thailand, but the government extended its state of emergency until the end of the month. However, The Thaiger reported that preparations for easing restrictions in the country are “now apparent”. With reviving the nation’s tourism a priority, its report questioned whether it may still be too soon to relax social distancing rules.

The situation was changing fast. Some businesses were due to open from May 3, but a night-time curfew and a ban on buying alcohol were to remain, only for the government to backtrack and allow alcohol sales. The Star interpreted the government’s moves to mean that provided infection numbers stay low, more restrictions will be lifted.

Meanwhile, The Pattaya Mail led with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s calls for patience while the government eases restrictions. “Public health is at risk, therefore, everyone must learn and adjust,” he said.

Malaysia is cautiously easing restrictions, but businesses want protection

In Malaysia, the fourth phase of the movement control order (MCO) has begun. Two family members are now allowed to travel together after the government eased its restrictions somewhat. This is scheduled to last until May 12. Channel News Asia confirmed that some businesses can now operate at full capacity.

However, Free Malaysia Today reported that other businesses are calling for the government to offer them more support. They want the government to pass a law preventing them from being sued once the MCO ends. This would mirror the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act Singapore recently put in place. “The relief imposed by law will save jobs, businesses, companies and investments—which will then continue to improve the economy,” argued Raymond Liew, president of accountancy firm McMillan Woods.

Other countries in the region are further away from easing restrictions

In the Philippines, the government extended the lockdown in Manila until May 15. However, it has relaxed measures in other areas. ABS-CBN detailed how a general quarantine is now being applied rather than a lockdown. It warned that the government might return to more stringent restrictions if infections start to rise again.

Singapore is further behind and will not ease restrictions soon. Indonesian government officials expect they will get the country back to normal by July, according to James Massola, writing in The Brisbane Times. However, experts challenged that view as they believe the country is not testing enough people to be able to gauge infection rates accurately.

“It’s a real risk for large countries not testing enough to take the foot off the brake too early,” warned University of Queensland virology professor Ian Mackay. “If the restrictions are relaxed you risk not such much a second wave but a flare-up of the first wave,” he added.

The Thaiger, in its piece reflecting how Malaysia and Thailand were watching Vietnam closely to see what happens when restrictions are lifted, warned that easing restrictions is not a competition. “Each country is having to look at the myriad of local issues as they factor in steps to re-open their economies…and every Southeast Asian country has different priorities,” it argued.

However, that is not to say that what happens in one nation has no relevance elsewhere. The fear remains that a second wave of infections could spread if restrictions are lifted too quickly and too early. But if Vietnam remains safe, others might well follow its lead. Seven days with no infections would be a good target for its fellow ASEAN members to have in mind before easing restrictions further.

About the Author

John Pennington
John Pennington is an English freelance writer and a self-published author. He graduated from the University of Warwick with a bachelor’s degree in French and History in 2006. After spending time as a sports journalist, he now writes about politics, history and social affairs.