Role Model No More: Why COVID Is Spreading In Asia

Asia was considered a role model in the fight against the pandemic. But now COVID-19 numbers are rising, forcing lockdowns just as the U.S. and Europe regain their freedom thanks in large part to high vaccination rates.

A testing site in Taipei's Wanhua District
Christina zur Nedden

When Panji Respati comes home from work, he has seen at least one person die that day. The young doctor works at a clinic in Bandung, Java, Indonesia. At the moment, he says, there are approximately 150 people in the emergency room. His clinic is overcrowded and his colleagues are overwhelmed. "It's mainly older people and those with pre-existing conditions who are dying, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated once, twice, or not at all," Respati tells Die Welt by telephone.

Like most Indonesians who have received a vaccine despite the limited supply, they have been immunized with the Chinese vaccine Chinese vaccine Sinovac. The physician himself has been double-vaccinated and still contracted the Delta variant. "That's how it is for some here," he says.

Indonesia recorded 1,205 deaths on July 16 and a record 54,000 confirmed new infections. Images from the capital, Jakarta, are reminiscent of India a month or two ago: lines outside hospitals, crowded cemeteries and desperate people looking for oxygen for their relatives.

For most of last year, Southeast Asia was considered a role model region.

The island nation of 270 million is not the only country in Southeast Asia struggling with rising COVID case numbers. Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Myanmar are also currently experiencing new waves of infections. For most of last year, Southeast Asia was considered a role model region in the fight against the virus. Due to their epidemic experience with Sars and Mers, many countries responded quickly and efficiently with the right measures, while Europe and the U.S. looked like novices. Right now, the case numbers are still lower in most Asian countries compared to Europe. But the tide seems to be turning for the previously successful COVID tamers. How could this have happened?

In Muslim-majority Indonesia, the number of cases and deaths has been rising since early June, after people gathered in May to celebrate the end of Ramadan. According to the Ministry of Health, tests showed that nearly 60% of cases in the past three weeks were due to the contagious Delta variant.

Jakarta's Rorotan Cemetery, reserved for the victims of COVID-19 — Photo: Afriadi Hikmal/NurPhoto/ZUMA

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent recently said that the country was on the verge of a "COVID disaster" because of a lack of hospital beds and oxygen supplies. More than 1,000 Indonesian communities are in lockdown, including the capital Jakarta and the resort island of Bali.

The government in Malaysia also extended the nationwide lockdown which has been in effect since early June. The country of 32 million people is also struggling with its worst pandemic wave yet, after initially coming through the first wave well. Malaysia recorded 12,541 new COVID cases which, in terms of population, placed the country amongst the worst-hit in the region. Here too, medical care is reaching its limits.

Vietnam declared a two-two-week lockdown for Ho Chi Minh City to counter the worst outbreak yet.

The situation is similar in Thailand, which up until now, was considered a showcase country. Bangkok and five other provinces have gone into lockdown. Only on the resort island of Phuket are fully vaccinated people allowed to vacation again, without quarantine, under the so-called "Sandbox" project to save the tourism industry.

Five months after the military coup, Myanmar is also battling its worst COVID wave yet. Clinics are overcrowded, there is a lack of tests, and many people distrust the health care system that is now run by the junta.

Vietnam, which had recorded fewer than 3,000 cases in April, declared a two-two-week lockdown on Friday for Ho Chi Minh City to counter the worst outbreak since the pandemic began. Other parts of Asia are also struggling. In Japan, for example, the Olympic Games will be held without spectators under a national state of emergency. South Korea, which has so far kept the pandemic at bay through intensive tracking and contact tracing, saw a record number of new infections earlier this month and for the first time announced the highest possible level of restrictions for the Seoul metropolitan area.

In the south of the continent, Bangladesh is currently the most affected by a major outbreak. There, the military is patrolling to enforce a national lockdown.

The cause of Asia's new wave of infection is the highly contagious delta variant, but also because people are adhering less and less to hygiene rules, international travel has been partially relaxed, and countries are making no progress with vaccination.

A vaccination venter in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on July 13 — Photo: Abu Sufian Jewel/ZUMA

In Thailand, only 4.8% of the population is fully vaccinated. In Vietnam, the figure is only 0.3%, in Indonesia 5.7% and India 5.5%.

"These countries have no prospect whatsoever of overcoming the pandemic through a rapid vaccination campaign in the next few months," says Donald Low, professor of public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. In the region, he said, wealthy Singapore alone has been able to vaccinate half of its population.

Some Asian countries, such as Thailand and South Korea, have recently acquired licenses to produce their vaccines developed elsewhere. India has been producing AstraZeneca's vaccine domestically for some time but also has to supply the whole world under the Covax program.

In addition, large countries such as Indonesia, have been immunized with the far less effective Chinese vaccines. Without sufficient vaccine doses, the governments of Southeast Asia have no choice but to close themselves off again, as Australia is doing. In the process, the already beleaguered economy suffers each time. But in countries like Indonesia, where people live closely together, lockdowns and stand-offs are difficult to implement. The country says it plans to vaccinate 180 million of its 270 million inhabitants against COVID-19 by early next year.

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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