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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
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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Speaker of the House KEVIN MCCARTHY, 58, R-Calif., catches his breath as he arrives to a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday
Anne-Sophie Goninet and Laure Gautherin

👋 你好*

Welcome to Wednesday, where U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is ousted, Italian authorities launch an investigation into the bus crash that killed 21 near Venice, and Sweden's Royal Academy of Sciences inadvertently releases the winners’ names of the Nobel Chemistry Prize earlier than planned. Meanwhile, ahead of the Oct. 15 Polish elections, we look at how some political parties are competing for conservative Catholic voters by promising more draconian anti-abortion laws.

[*Lí-hó - Taiwanese Hokkien]

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