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Poor will suffer from Southeast Asia's Covid-19 denial

Experts fear the pandemic is spreading unchecked and under-reported in the region's poorest countries

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Poor will suffer from Southeast Asia's Covid-19 denial

A woman wearing a mask amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus rides a motorcycle in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, on March 11. The impoverished nation has yet to report a single case of Covid-19. (Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP)

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The governments of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations are at last waking up and have become very concerned about the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Many have been in denial and very slow in their responses. The poor will bear the brunt of this governmental incompetence.

Myanmar, Laos and Timor-Leste still have no official cases of the virus, while infections remain low elsewhere in the region.

Here are the latest figures for countries in UCA News’ coverage area according to Johns Hopkins University data: China (81,074), South Korea (8,320), Japan (878), Malaysia (673), Singapore (266), Pakistan (236), Philippines (187), Thailand (177), Indonesia (172), India (142), Taiwan (77), Vietnam (66), Brunei Darussalam (56), Sri Lanka (44), Cambodia (33), Maldives (13), Bangladesh (10) and Nepal (1).

Yet the reason for these seemingly low rates is simple: the lack of testing kits. This issue is exacerbated by very basic health services, even in urban areas, and a lack of or confused public information about the disease.

Many poorer countries including Myanmar have been relying on donations of testing kits from wealthier nations such as Japan, which has been at the forefront of helping Myanmar with its response. Even Indonesia, which has ordered 10,000 testing kits, is chronically underprepared.

Experts fear that Covid-19 is spreading unchecked and under-reported in Southeast Asia’s poorest countries — Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste.

The underlying, or real, number of infections was highlighted on March 17 when Cambodia announced its number of infections had doubled overnight to 24. That is in line with the sort of rises that have been seen in other countries where testing has been more widespread.

Until recently, Hun Sen, Cambodia’s dictator prime minister, had said that the country’s warmer weather would protect people from the virus. Yet there is no certainty about the nature of this pathogen and its relationship with external heat and humidity, traditionally factors in slowing seasonal influenza pathogens.

Again, Hun Sen’s weeks of inaction have left his citizens at greater risk.

The lack of testing kits is a genuine concern. The best medical advice is that the more that people showing symptoms can be tested, then authorities can start tracing who these people have been in contact with. They can then isolate as many people as possible from a disease that has an infection rate of between 4.5 and six people per patient, according to scientific research.

Myanmar is a good example of a government hardly known for its competence belatedly moving into gear. In recent days it has introduced a raft of measures included blocking travel to the country from countries where infections are high: China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, France and Spain. More countries are sure to join the list. Myanmar has also belatedly canceled its annual Thingyan water festival, part of the nation’s week-long New Year celebrations.

Similar festivals are also held in neighboring Buddhist countries Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Those not yet canceled are expected to be soon, but such action should have been taken before now.

Governments in Southeast Asia have often bungled their responses to the coronavirus. The best example was Singapore closing its borders on March 15, largely in response to wealthy Indonesians fleeing their country and checking straight into Singaporean hospitals, effectively bringing the disease to the city-state.

Such incompetence will hit the poor harder than the wealthy elites who can afford health care and to be isolated, not relying on daily street contact for their living.

Advice from health agencies that people should stay at home if they are feeling unwell, or begin to stockpile food in response to the coronavirus outbreak, is surely well intentioned, but it fails to take into account the most vulnerable members of society.

“Guidance to date is of limited use to people without adequate safety nets. Workers in the informal economy may not have the luxury of staying at home without paid sick leave,” said Vidya Diwakar, senior research officer at ODI, an independent think tank focused on poverty.

People living in or near poverty often lack disposable cash and cannot easily stockpile food. Hunger, malnutrition, pneumonia and other forms of health-related shocks and stresses compound vulnerability to the virus and contribute to a vicious cycle of disease, destitution and death. Poverty can fuel contagion, but contagion can also create or deepen impoverishment, he added.

This crisis has a long way to run.

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