© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People wearing protective masks sit before receiving a dose of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine during the mass vaccination program at the Tangerang City Government Center in Tangerang, in the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia, Ju
By Martin Petty and Stanley Widianto
(Reuters) – Having escaped the worst when the coronavirus pandemic broke out last year, Southeast Asia is now suffering a record spike in deaths and cases, while vaccine shortages and highly contagious variants have derailed efforts. containment.
As countries like Britain, Germany and France prepare to remove most of the remaining restrictions after the devastating outbreaks, Southeast Asian governments have been tightening measures, hoping that selective closures will act as switches to stop the dramatic spikes after cases began to rise in May.
Indonesia, the region’s most affected and populous country, recorded 38,391 cases Thursday, six times the previous month’s figure, in a week in which its daily death toll doubled since early July.
Hospitals on Java’s most populous island are being pushed to the limit, oxygen supplies are low, and four of the five COVID-19-designated cemeteries in the capital Jakarta are nearly full.
Record deaths were reported in Malaysia and Thailand on Thursday, where authorities proposed restrictions on internal travel as the Delta variant wreaking havoc in Indonesia spread rapidly in and around Bangkok. A new terminal at the Thai capital’s airport is being converted into a 5,000-bed field hospital.
Neighboring Myanmar saw more than 4,000 new cases for the first time on Thursday and one of its deadliest days, while Cambodia has seen its highest number of cases and deaths in the past nine days.
Health experts say a low level of testing in the region’s most populous countries, Indonesia and the Philippines, is also likely hiding the full extent of the outbreaks, while Myanmar has seen a collapse in testing since the military coup in February.
Vietnam’s reputation as a coronavirus success story is under threat, with more cases in the past three days than during the first 13 months of the pandemic, although Thursday’s record of 1,314 cases was a fraction of Indonesia’s.
Fears of a shutdown sparked panic buying at supermarkets this week in the epicenter of Ho Chi Minh City, and a 4% drop in its main stock index on Tuesday.
The capital, Hanoi, stopped public transport from places with groups of infection, to isolate itself from the outbreak in the southern commercial center, where some of the strictest restrictions in the country had been in effect since Friday.
Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Griffith University, said the region was struggling to cope with the Delta variant and was paying for inconsistencies in strategy and messaging, and protocol enforcement.
He also cited the need to expand the range of vaccines to better protect populations, noting the dominance of the Sinovac vaccine, due to China’s vaccine diplomacy when Western brands were not available.
“There are definitely benefits to the vaccine, but it also has its weak sides. Why? In handling the pandemic on a larger scale … vaccines cannot stand alone,” he said. “Vaccines must diversify. Resources must diversify.”
Vaccination rates remain low, with 5.4% of Indonesia’s 270 million people fully inoculated, about 2.7% of the population of the Philippines, and 4.7% of the population of Thailand.
Malaysia has vaccinated 9.3% of its 32 million people and introduced an enhanced lockdown on its capital and industrial belt.
Indonesia and Thailand are considering booster injections with mRNA vaccines, such as those of Modern (NASDAQ 🙂 and Pfizer-BioNTech / Cominarty, for medical workers who have mostly received Sinovac’s China-made inactivated virus vaccines, amid concerns about their resistance to the variants.
Singapore is among the few bright spots, and authorities are expected to further ease the restrictions imposed when the Delta variant was detected and complete the immunization of half the population later this month.
The city-state plans to allow fully vaccinated residents to attend larger gatherings such as concerts, conferences, and sporting events.