Asian countries are reporting record COVID-19 waves this year compared to 2020, as vaccination drives fall short and governments lose hope that mass closures and border controls can keep the coronavirus away, observers in the region say.
Spread of the delta variant from India, infections among airline personnel and citizens who brought back the virus from trips spread COVID-19 in parts of Asia with recent outbreaks. Containment measures had relaxed in some spots after months of low caseloads while domestic travel picked up.
Officials from Bangkok to Taipei sidelined vaccine procurement last year while Western countries were preparing to make shots so widespread that England is now 87% vaccinated and in the United States just about any adult can get shots from a local drugstore.
Many Asian countries held back the respiratory disease in 2020 by barring foreign tourists and shutting down places where people gather. Manufacturing-reliant Asian economies held up economically last year for lack of long-term work stoppages.
“I call this a complacency curse,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
“Thailand did so well during virus stage last year that it sat on its laurels and got behind the curve on vaccine procurement,” he told VOA.
Thailand has fully vaccinated just 5% of its population, with Vietnam at around 1%, according to the Our World in Data research website. Vietnam hit a one-day coronavirus infection record of 5,926 on July 18, while Thailand posted its own record of 11,397 the same day.
In Taiwan, which reported its first major COVID-19 wave in May, just 0.5% of people had received two shots as of mid-July and 20% had gotten one shot.
In the Philippines, which has battled COVID-19 steadily for more than a year, daily caseloads have held at around 5,000 after an earlier spike. Malaysia touched a one-day record of 13,215 cases on July 15. Both have strict community quarantine rules.
Residents wait on line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the Central Vaccination Center in Bangkok, Thailand, July 22, 2021.
Asian countries are fighting now to get vaccines because Western pharmaceutical companies are busy filling orders in other parts of the world, governments in Asia are slow to grant permits for domestic drug firms, and their citizens worry about side effects, news reports say. Cold storage has run short in some spots.
Many have turned to donations or rush orders from China, Japan and the United States. Taiwan and Vietnam aim to release domestically produced vaccines to augment supplies. Japan offered Vietnam $1.8 million as well for vaccine cold storage, the Vietnam Insider news website said in May.
“I think slowly [Vietnam] will recover as people are doing in Europe and in the U.S.,” said Phuong Hong, 40, a travel sector worker in Ho Chi Minh City who spends 95% of her time at home with four family members as they all await text messages from the government telling them when they qualify for vaccines.
“It should be faster, but I think the distribution channel — they also need to understand how to store the vaccine,” she said.
In Indonesia, the government has accepted vaccines from China and other sources, but the country’s full vaccination rate is just 6%. On July 15, Indonesia hit a record daily caseload of 56,757.
Citizens have a list of misgivings, said Paramita Supamijoto, an international relations lecturer at Bina Nusantara University in Jakarta. They might believe vaccines are not halal, according to Islamic rules about what a person should ingest, or that COVID-19 itself is a “hoax,” she said. Indonesians with possible symptoms tend to avoid hospitals, she added, in part because they’re full.
“It’s really complicated here in Indonesia, in general,” Supamijoto said. “You don’t know whether the people who stand next to you or sit next to you [are] healthy or not.”
A health worker administers the COVID-19 vaccine at the Central Vaccination Center in Bangkok, Thailand, July 22, 2021.
Much of 660 million-population Southeast Asia now faces new rounds of economic inactivity triggered by business closures and stay-home orders to contain the virus. The Asian Development Bank said this month it had downgraded Southeast Asia’s 2021 economic growth forecast to 4.0% from 4.4% “as some countries reimpose pandemic restrictions.”
“Countries have been significantly impacted quite a lot in terms of their economies and the impact is increasing, so that’s I would say quite a contrast to what’s happening say in the U.S. and Europe, where things have improved quite a lot,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit.
A surge in delta variant cases brought from India by frequent travel has added to Southeast Asia’s woes, Biswas added. He said, though, that most Asian countries are shunning the “total lockdowns” of last year because of the economic impacts.
Asian governments say vaccine supplies should surge in the second half of the year. Thai officials said in June they would fill an earlier pledge for doses by the end of this month, while Taiwan’s president set a target of vaccinating 25% of the island’s population by July 31.
Vietnam anticipates providing 110 million doses by December, though still short of its goal of 150 million doses for 75% of the population, Vietnam Insider reports.
Economic slowdowns are “not permanent,” said Song Seng Wun, an economist in the private banking unit of Malaysian bank CIMB, adding, “we will get back once the vaccine rollout comes.”