How Southeast Asia’s poorest nations successfully suppressed Covid-19

Region has reported low infection and death rates following speedy responses to pandemic

People wearing face masks to stop the spread of Covid in Hanoi, Vietnam
People wearing face masks in Hanoi, Vietnam
(Image credit: Linh Pham/Getty Images)

As countries worldwide struggle to contain Covid outbreaks, one corner of the globe has had standout success in stopping the spread.

Mainland Southeast Asia - comprising Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam - has reported surprisingly low infection and related death rates. And while some critics have attributed the trend to poor testing regimes and poor reporting of fatalities outside of hospital, many experts say otherwise.

The “strategy behind these successes is based on the same basic factors” and measures that were imposed elsewhere, says the Lowy Institute.

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But Southeast Asia was quicker in “prioritising health above economic concerns, producing excellent public communications, enforcing early border controls, and mandating behaviour change” including strict lockdowns and widespread use of masks, the Australia-based think tank continues.

And “these things work”.

All the same, the success of the region’s Covid response is all the more remarkable given the economic constraints at play. According to World Bank data, Cambodia has a modest per capita GDP of around $1,600 (£1,167), while Myanmar’s is around $1,400 (£1,021). Laos and Vietnam clock in only marginally higher, each at around $2,500 (£1,824).

Vietnam also faces the additional pandemic threat posed by having a long border with China, the epicentre of the global outbreak. But “recognising that its medical system would soon become overwhelmed by even mild spread of the virus” among Vietnam’s 97 million-strong population, the authorities “chose prevention early, and on a massive scale”, as the BBC reported last year.

The country closely monitored and then closed its border with China in January 2020, and schools were also shut until last May, while “a vast and labour intensive contact tracing operation got under way”, said the broadcaster.

Similar measures were taken in Cambodia, which has “remained one of the world’s least impacted countries from a public health perspective”, the Southeast Asia Globe reports.

“The narrative surrounding the kingdom’s pandemic response has centred on notions of luck and deception, as opposed to skill and good judgement,” says the news site.

But with “only 1.2 tests per every thousand have returned a positive result - the fourth lowest globally of countries with more than 20 cases”, official data indicates that Cambodia’s coronavirus prevention measures have worked.

Collaboration across the region has boosted the success of each nation’s response. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has drawn on “prior experiences with pandemics”, including the Sars outbreak in 2003, to deploy “mechanisms for pandemic preparedness and response”, according to US-based think-tank the Brookings Institute.

The coordinated effort has included “timely and accurate exchanges of information and technical inputs on the nature of the disease”, as well as region-wide “testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine”, and the implementation of “preventive and control measures, including combating false news and misinformation”.

As a result, the nations have “collectively emerged as a rare pocket of resilience in the face of the coronavirus pandemic”, says Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In an article on World Politics Review, Kurlantzick suggests that more hard-hit countries could “benefit from looking eastward and taking lessons from mainland Southeast Asia’s response”.

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