What next? Asia struggles with shutdown

Across Asia and beyond, most countries have hunkered down with various degrees of social distancing measures in place, as governments try to beat the coronavirus pandemic and keep their people safe.

As the closure of borders and suspension of all non-essential activities take their toll on the economy and people, countries and territories also have to grapple with concerns between allowing greater freedom of movement and guarding against a second wave of infections.

Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, an international affairs senior analyst with political consultancy firm Solaris Strategies Singapore, told The Straits Times: “As there is no standardised guidebook on lifting the shutdown, governments and countries would have to look at the specific circumstances of their individual countries before making an informed decision to lift the restrictions in phases, and with caution and precision to guard against a sudden spike in cases.

“At the same time, countries could share their best practices, models, blueprints and strategies with one another on the lifting of the lockdown.”

Some countries such as China and Vietnam have eased their restrictions following a drop in cases, but many more like Malaysia and India have kept their restrictions in place.

While businesses in China are slowly opening up, the country’s biggest concerns remain imported cases and asymptomatic patients, which the authorities fear could cause a second wave of infections.

It has shut its borders, barring nearly all foreigners from entering the country while prohibiting international travel for its citizens. Provinces vary in control measures but some of the strictest policies have been put in place in its capital Beijing, where all entering from outside the city are subject to a 14-day quarantine and an additional seven days of “home observation”, after a recent case showed symptoms only after the two-week mark.

But these measures have failed to prevent a raft of infections among returning Chinese, especially students studying in Europe and the United States.

In recent weeks, a new wave of infections has shown up in the northernmost province of Heilongjiang, which shares a border with Russia.


HONG KONG: An assistant with a face mask and shield distributing documents to students during the Diploma of Secondary Education 
examinations in Hong Kong yesterday. PHOTO: REUTERS

In Vietnam, two of its biggest cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, came back to life this week as their shutdowns were eased to reflect the lowered threat of new infections. The country has gone on for more than a week without new Covid-19 cases, which stand at 270.

Still, it is not letting its guard down, with the government classifying locales into high-risk, medium-risk and low-risk categories, with restrictions adjusted based on the conditions in each province or municipality.

Some countries such as Thailand are considering easing their restrictions. The National Security Council is expected to propose to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha next Monday to extend its current state of emergency, which is due to end on April 30, with some sectors allowed to restart their businesses.


THAILAND: A volunteer distributing 500 Thai baht (S$22) to each person affected by Covid-19 at the Wat Phra Sri Mahathat Woramahawihan Buddhist temple in Bangkok yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NO SHUTDOWNS BUT SOCIAL DISTANCING RULES APPLY

South Korea, lauded for controlling its outbreak because of massive testing and a social distancing campaign, has extended its social distancing policy until May 5, but offered some relief for churches and sporting fixtures, provided they abide by preventive rules.

Experts and the authorities urged people against letting their guard down, often citing Singapore’s sudden spike in cases as a warning.

“They say the road ahead is more difficult and dangerous,” Yonhap news agency quoted Dr Kwon Joon-wook, deputy director at the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, as saying recently.

“We have to keep an eye on how patients are increasing in some Asian countries that were seen to have successfully contained (the virus).”


THE PHILIPPINES: Men with face masks talking across makeshift barriers placed on a street yesterday amid the lockdown in Manila. PHOTO: REUTERS

In Japan, there are worries over its “weak link” – the inability to test more widely than it currently is doing, amid profound fears of a collapse of its medical systems.

With the upcoming long weekend holidays at the end of this month, there are also fears that cases in South Korea and Japan will spike given that people may want to travel during that time.

ECONOMIC TOLL

Economies have taken a beating because of the curbs put in place. Governments have pumped in billions of dollars in aid to prop up sagging economies, with millions of people worried that they may be left jobless while financial liabilities march on.

In Malaysia, the number of infections has started to taper off but the government has kept its movement control curbs in place until May 12. This has led analysts to downgrade their forecasts for the economy, with Barclays predicting an 8.5 per cent contraction.

Despite RM16 billion (S$5.2 billion) in wage subsidies and grants from the government to help businesses keep workers on their books as they weather the outbreak, millions are still expected to lose their jobs, with official data showing record numbers of applications for unemployment benefits in the first quarter of the year.


MALAYSIA: Soldiers installing barbed wire near apartment buildings that have been locked down in Selayang on Monday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In neighbouring Indonesia, a “bad-case scenario” projection would see almost three million people losing their jobs, said Finance Ministry head of fiscal policy Febrio Kacaribu. The number will spike to more than five million people in a “worst-case scenario”.

“We are anticipating that the worst impact may be felt in the quarter (of April to June). How bad it will be would depend on how long the pandemic lasts,” said Mr Febrio.

India’s government is taking a calibrated approach to open up its economy.

The local authorities have allowed industries in areas where there are no coronavirus cases to resume. Some activities, including factories and farming, are allowed in the hinterland.

LOW WAGE WORKERS AND PEOPLE’S MOVEMENT

Singapore’s own struggle with containing the outbreak among foreign workers has also led to concerns over whether Malaysia is monitoring the millions of migrant workers in the country who also live in cramped and often derelict conditions.

The Malaysian government has been proactive in declaring an enhanced restriction which strictly forbids any movement of people and shutters all business premises when there have been spikes of cases in low-wage labour enclaves such as the Masjid India and North City Centre areas in Kuala Lumpur.

There are further worries of undocumented migrants – estimated to outnumber legal foreign workers by a count of 3.3 million to 2.2 million – falling through the cracks.

“These workers are vulnerable because they live in congested shared quarters and do work that does not make it possible to practise strict social distancing,” Ms Glorene Das, executive director of the Tenaganita women and labour rights organisation, said earlier this week.


AUSTRALIA: Eight-year-old twins Oriana (left) and Rafaela Ikladious holding pictures that they drew during the coronavirus pandemic, while standing on the balcony of their home in Sydney on April 18. PHOTO: REUTERS

Over in Indonesia, a chief concern is mudik, which traditionally sees millions of people returning to their home towns to celebrate Hari Raya.

This has raised fears of the virus spreading from Jakarta, the epicentre of the country’s outbreak, to other parts of Java island, as well as outside Java, and prompted the government to declare a ban on mudik that started yesterday.

In Cambodia, about 86,000 Cambodian newly jobless migrant workers returned home from Thailand over the past month. While they have been quarantined, there is great concern over possible infections among this group, with Interior Minister Sar Kheng admitting that the health authorities cannot test all of them.

“These workers have not displayed any of the Covid-19 symptoms despite no tests being conducted, and where tests were conducted, the results returned as negative,” Mr Sar Kheng was quoted as saying by Khmer Times on April 24.

• Additional reporting by Elizabeth Law, Shannon Teoh, Chang May Choon, Nirmala Ganapathy, Tan Hui Yee, Walter Sim, Arlina Arshad, Claire Huang and Hathai Techakitteranun

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