Author’s note: This is part of The Covid-19 Chronicles Series covering how nations and regions are responding to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) crisis.
May 20, 2020 (Gunnar Ulson – NEO) – The ten Southeast Asian states of ASEAN with a collective population of 622 million people has weathered the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) relatively well.
A combination of quick reactions, a hesitation to overreact and strong preexisting economic fundamentals, the region looks well on its way to returning to normal, that is, if it is able to resist the “new normal” the West seeks to impose globally.
In stark contrast to reports out of the West regarding infections and deaths related to Covid-19, Southeast Asia has seen relatively fewer confirmed infections and fewer deaths. The table below illustrates just how few deaths there have been (a total of just 2,079) for a region with nearly twice the population of the United States.
Brunei: 141 cases, 1 death
Cambodia: 122 cases, no reported deaths
Indonesia: 16,496 cases, 1,076 deaths
Laos: 19 cases, no reported deaths
Malaysia: 6,855 cases, 112 deaths
Myanmar: 181 cases, 6 deaths
Philippines: 12,091 cases, 806 deaths
Singapore: 26,891 cases, 21 deaths
Thailand: 3,025 cases, 56 deaths
Vietnam: 312 cases, no reported deaths
There have been few if any reports of overcrowded hospitals or shortages of critical medical equipment. Virtually all of the deaths reported were associated with chronic preexisting health conditions, with some cases calling into question whether Covid-19 really was the cause of death rather than merely a contributing factor, if even.
While everything from ASEAN’s warmer climate to quick measures put into place cited by commentators and analysts, it is much more likely that Covid-19 simply is not as dangerous as the Western mass media has claimed and that the governments in ASEAN simply did not respond to nor feed into the wave of panic triggered by sensationalist Western headlines and overreactions in Western capitals.
Despite this, measures were put into place and these measures, more than the pathogen itself, are responsible for the impact Covid-19 is having on the region.
While the actual impact of the pathogen was minimal, the international “peer pressure” to close borders, lockdown populations and otherwise grind national economies to a halt triggered a series of measures across ASEAN.
Restricted travel between ASEAN states and between China and ASEAN had been imposed but since, incrementally rolled back.
“Stay at home” measures have been put in place as well as “social distancing” measures monkeying those put in place across the West. Mandatory use of masks has been imposed both by private businesses and by both national and regional governments. Schools had been closed and many “non-essential” businesses had also been closed, but also are now incrementally being reopened.
As businesses and public venues are slowly allowed to reopen, measures are being kept in place to encourage “social distancing” and the continues use of masks despite a lack of evidence proving any of these measures address the actual spread of Covid-19 rather than simply give a panicked public peace of mind.
Despite the minimum impact the actual pathogen had on ASEAN, the measures taken to stop the “spread” of Covid-19 has had a serious impact socioeconomically.
Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia represent the top three largest economies in ASEAN. All three have suffered not from overtaxed healthcare facilities or stacks of dead bodies due to Covid-19 the pathogen, but rather from the impact of closing borders, shuttering businesses and otherwise paralyzing their respective populations due to Covid-19 the panic.
Millions are still temporarily unemployed and suicides associated with a lack of income, mounting personal debts and growing impatience far outweigh any news regarding the actual health impact of Covid-19.
While ASEAN slowly reopens businesses and social venues in the hopes of returning to normal, it is unclear how deep and lasting the current socioeconomic impact of shutdowns and lockdowns will be.
It is also unclear whether or not ASEAN states have any plan at all regarding future “outbreaks” and whether or not they are willing to cave to international “peer pressure” again in another round of overreactions and self-inflicted socioeconomic calamity.
Looking at the numbers, it is clear that some ASEAN states tested their populations more extensively than others, but regardless of the number of infections, overall deaths have been minimal, comparable to the common cold or the annual flu, a conclusion that falls in line with other studies including in the West finding many more people being infected than officially reported and simply overcoming the virus.
If ASEAN doesn’t shutter itself for half a year every year because of other common infectious but relatively benign viruses, it makes little sense to do so again over Covid-19 and its successors.
Like China, regardless of how quickly ASEAN bounces back regionally, it still depends on exports to nations including in the West that look very unlikely to emerge any time soon from their own self-inflicted crises in the wake of Covid-19’s spread.
Because China represents ASEAN’s biggest and most important trade partner and considering how China and other large Asian states are already reemerging from the impact of Covid-19, what is likely to take shape is a much stronger inter-Asian trade bloc seeking to stand back up and to do so with less dependence on Western markets. ASEAN and Asia as a whole, if the region remains on track to reopen and return to normal, will be better positioned globally if other nations, including in the West insist on dragging out the Covid-19 crisis any further.
It is also worth noting that attempts by certain groups, backed primarily by Western special interests, seeking to create anti-Chinese sentiment in ASEAN associated with Covid-19 have mostly failed. In most ASEAN states solidarity has been expressed on both sides of China-ASEAN borders with both sides eager to reopen for business, tourism and cooperation including work on the One Belt, One Road initiative and various infrastructure projects associated with it.
ASEAN now finds itself tilting in the balance of returning to normal and avoiding a “new normal” imposed by the West and so-called “international institutions” mainly funded and in the service of Western special interests. It would be a “new normal” that will hinder and govern socioeconomic progress with unnecessary restrictions seeking to target growing global powers and make up for the West’s increasingly flaccid economic competitiveness.
Covid-19 will end up being a defining moment in history, and not because of how nations reacted to any sort of genuine health crisis, but how it weathered attempts by malign special interests to leverage it to redefine, redivide and exploit the world and the people living in it. ASEAN will be a bellwether indicating what shape this world will take.
Gunnar Ulson, a New York-based geopolitical analyst and writer especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.