On June 8, 2020, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared the country COVID free as the last patient was discharged from hospital and social distancing restrictions and other lockdown measures were lifted. The country had reported its first case on February 26, a woman who had travelled from Iran to Auckland. Since then the government has imposed travel restrictions from Iran and subsequently announced a lockdown as it saw a spike of cases.
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern has received overflowing appreciation from the international community for her successful and bold steps in curbing the coronavirus spread. The international media covered New Zealand’s success in a jubilant and euphoric way. However little attention seems to be paid to the efforts of the countries of the South East Asian region .
Did the governments of this region respond to the crisis in an unorganized manner or did they systematically implemented lockdown and testing measures?
Thailand, a constitutional monarchy in the South-East Asian region which also has a similar government setup like New Zealand has not been talked of much in the international arena. Thailand reported its first COVID-19 case on January 13 2020 making it the first country outside China to register a coronavirus case. Since Thailand has a majority of its travelers from Wuhan therefore it had already started screening the passengers from 31 Dec 2019 and the very next day the health ministry responded swiftly by setting up an emergency operations center thus providing a catalyst to its response mechanism.
While it was not practically possible for the island country to indulge in mass screening hence it adopted the efficient strategy of Contact Tracing by setting up more than a thousand epidemiological teams for investigating and tracking cases. In the month of May, it also launched an app named ‘Mor Chana’ to ramp up efforts of contact tracing. Although in the immediate future the South East -Asian countries might not able to replace themselves as a synonym of ‘Silicon Valley’ yet the efficient use of technology to curb Corona Virus’s spread is remarkable.
With a population of 6.94 Crores and a population density of 136 people per sq km Thailand’s efforts in containing COVID-19 have not been talked through. The Thai Government had raised its travel advisory to level 3 on 23 January 2020, a week before the WHO declared Corona Virus Outbreak as a Global Pandemic. In fact, the administration also launched a ‘ Big Cleaning Week’ Initiative on 4 February 2020 to spread awareness among the general public on health and hygiene. This initiative roped in various non-profits, civil society organizations and military personnel, thus attempting to promote solidarity and build a united front to fight the outbreak.
While developing countries are targeted for their low budgetary allocation for the health sector, human resource development and education sectors, it is worth noting that The Thai Parliament has allocated a stimulus package of THB 1.6 Trillion or 9.6 per cent of its GDP whereas New Zealand’s government has floated a spending package equivalent to 4% of GDP in an attempt to fight the effects of Covid-19 on the economy.
Thailand was burdened with the third-highest number of confirmed cases after China and Singapore four weeks after it registered its first case. However, At present The total count stands at 3,220 with a mortality rate of 1.8% which is relatively much low considering its population density as compared to New Zealand.The brilliant efforts of New Zealand in curbing the spread of the virus cannot be denied yet it is worth noting that it has a population density of 18 people per sq km as compared to Thailand which accounts for 136 people per sq km thus giving it an upper hand in ensuring social distancing norms.
The international community has not only paid minimal attention to the success rate of developing countries in the South-East Asian region but also portrayed them as harbourers of poverty, epidemics and areas of population outburst with low or negligible healthcare systems. In another example from Sri Lanka, we can infer how the island nation managed to curb the spread of coronavirus by setting up a study group in the early weeks of January to study the virus. Although the Parliament of Sri Lanka stands dissolved as the nation awaits another election yet a graded response by the government including the existing provision of universal healthcare package similar to Thailand helped it to reduce the death rate.
The international media has portrayed a structured bias against south-east Asian region by constantly discriminating its brilliant efforts in ramping up healthcare facility, economic restructuring, thus presenting them as inferior. The Success story of Indian states like Kerala has also been unmentioned in the international arena of how it successfully controlled the outbreak of Nipah Virus in 2018 , battled one of the most life threatening floods in 2019 and yet successfully controlled Corona Virus outbreak. The World needs to look at this region through a lens of the potential of rapid development, zeal and vigour among its population in overcoming obstacles and not just portray it as a harbinger of low GDP, poor sanitation and health care system.
Written by Sehaj Singh
(Sehaj is a 1st Year student pursuing BA political science (hons.) from Kirorimal College)