The escalation of COVID-19 globally has warranted states to respond within the confines of their own borders. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) made a collective statement on 30 April 2020 to respond to the virus with “preparedness, prevention, detection and response.” Although ASEAN as an entity has noted the seriousness of COVID-19, responses from states in the region differ immeasurably and, in some cases, have been lamentable. Two factors which are highly relevant for understanding ASEAN’s response and handling of the crisis are individual states’ levels of health security and relative levels of media freedom. A country’s level of pandemic preparedness can be measured with reference to the Global Health Security Index (GHSI), while the World Press Freedom Index provides insight into how freely information around COVID-19 and the states subsequent response has been communicated or constricted.
In the ASEAN region, Brunei ranks last in the Global Health Security Index – indicating a relatively low level of pandemic preparedness. Despite its relatively low score on the index, Brunei has the third lowest number of cases in the region and has successfully curbed the exacerbation of the virus, without imposing harsh lockdowns. Brunei’s low ranking for press freedom results from the fact that its media is dominated by the government-controlled Radio Television Brunei. In spite of this, the government has consistently provided daily information on COVID-19 to its citizens and has recorded 141 active cases recently. Its rich economy has enabled both its Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Finance and Economy (MOFE) to defer payments for loans for various industries. However, these measures come with an added caveat that all companies are required to repay the government a year after they have been provided the deferment.
Amidst the manifestation of COVID-19, the Cambodian government has been under much scrutiny for human rights violations. Reports of 124 cases and 122 recoveries are overshadowed by the government’s suppression of press freedom amidst COVID-19. Ranking at 6th for press freedom and 9th for pandemic preparedness in the region, the Cambodian government has proven to be ill-equipped in responding to COVID-19. The arrest of the journalist, Sovann Rithy, for making a comment on the lack of aid provided by the Cambodian government is unwarranted. Furthermore, the Human Rights Watch has noted that a total of 30 individuals have been arrested for spreading what the Cambodian government notes as “fake news.” In reality, this is the Cambodian government’s method of ensuring that any reports that may point to their lack of appropriate measures to counter the spread of COVID-19 are suppressed.
Indonesia is the largest ASEAN nation by population, but has been slow at implementing measures to restrict the transmission of the virus. Although Indonesia ranks at fourth in preparedness for a pandemic in the region, it currently has 20,796 active cases and 5,057 recoveries. Worrisomely, all 34 provinces in Indonesia have reported cases of COVID-19. This time-lag has increased the threat to health security. As estimated by the University of Indonesia, the country is expected to have “2.5 million” cases and “240,000 deaths.” Indonesia has responded with a 5 point plan that touches on issues such as “large-scale social restriction (PSBB)” stretching across 4 provinces and 12 districts, more oversight of testing on migrant workers, “social safety net programs” for poor families and the establishment of a national COVID-19 hotline for individuals. The Indonesian government appears to be implementing measures, but the overall effectiveness of these measures is curbed by the government’s initiative to silence the press. Indonesia ranks at the second highest in the region for press freedom, but the Indonesian National Police announced on April 4 that it will regulate any reporting that may paint the government and the president in a negative light.
Laos is relatively poor as compared to its ASEAN counterparts and is very much reliant on the Chinese economy for economic stability. Laos has the least number of cases in the region, amounting to only 19. However, the validity of this needs to be questioned, as not only does Laos rank second last in the region for the freedom of press, but journalists have had to remove any negative implications related to its communistic government.
After Prime Minister Mahathir’s resignation in late February, it halted the progress made by the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition for a more equal Malaysia. The UMNO coalition under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was reinstated and has since been inconsistent in its governance and overall handling of COVID-19. Although many reports indicate that Malaysia’s Movement Control Order (MCO) has reduced the spread of the virus, it has not eradicated cluster cases. This can be evidenced in the Malaysian government extending its MCO four times. The extension could perhaps indicate that Malaysian authorities are cautious in preventing the spread of the virus, being the second most prepared in the region for a pandemic. Malaysia ranks at the second highest in the freedom of press, but this openness has only exposed biases in Malaysia’s laws. An example involves the arrest of those who have violated the recently enacted movement regulations. In one case, a single mother was initially sentenced to 30 days in jail for violating the regulation. After her lawyer pointed out that two other similar cases only had to pay a fine of RM1000, her sentence was reduced to 8 days in jail and a RM1000 fine. One of the two cases involved the President of UMNO’s daughter and her husband who were fined a total RM800 for bridging the same offence.
The gravity of Myanmar’s ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis has increased as COVID-19 cases escalate in the country. Myanmar is reported to have 178 cases, but its government has not taken initiative to protect the most vulnerable during this time. As it ranks seventh in its preparedness for a pandemic, the rate of 1.1 hospital beds per 100,000 people place Myanmar at an extremely high risk of being incapable of containing the virus, should it rapidly escalate within its borders. Despite ranking fourth in the region for freedom of the press, the International Press Institute reported on April 1 that nearly 200 news websites have been government-controlled Internet and mobile providers. Myanmar’s inept reputation in dealing ethnic minorities continues to be severe during the pandemic. Rohingyas for instance are not provided the same rights as other Burmese citizens and are excluded from the central health care system. Additionally, those who belong to the Karen ethnic group have been increasingly displaced during the period of the virus. As reported by Deutsche Welle (DW), 18 diplomats in Myanmar have urged the government to implement measures to ensure the security of the vulnerable ethnic groups in the community.
With over 13,000 cases, the Philippines’ outbreak is among the region’s largest. Since recording the first death outside China on 2 February, the death count has risen to 846. President Duterte’s brand of illiberal authoritarianism and desire for a stronger economic relationship with China contributed to a poorly managed approach. He occasionally adopted a hard-line stance reminiscent of his war on drugs, instructing police to respond to people disobeying lockdown rules by shooting them, but downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic on other occasions. These contradictions confused the Philippine populace once lockdowns and travel restrictions were announced. Although the Philippines received the third best press freedom ranking within ASEAN, this is still poor by international standards (136th in the world); the recent forced closure of major independent TV network ABS-CBN suggests Duterte’s desire to censor critics outweighs any interest in clear communication during a pandemic.
Singapore’s economic strength was put to use early on, providing funding for high levels of testing and contact tracing. Although press freedom is not a particular strength for Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong banked on the accuracy of reportedly high levels of public trust in government and media institutions. In March 2020 he stated: “We are transparent… [Y]ou have to maintain that trust because if people do not trust you, even if you have the right measures, it is going to be very hard to get it implemented.” However, from 1000 cases and just 3 deaths on 1 April, this ballooned to 26,000 cases by mid-May, largely due to widespread transmission among migrant workers. Fortunately, Singapore has only reported 23 deaths, partly due to the youth of migrants and well-funded healthcare. Nevertheless, the virus’s spread through the crowded accommodation of Singapore’s lower classes hints at the persistent issue of income inequality – while richer Singaporeans can afford to self-isolate in a socially-distanced environment, others cannot.
The GHS Index gives Thailand the 6th highest rating in the world, placing them above Sweden and South Korea in terms of health security. While Thailand has performed better than some similarly sized countries, COVID-19 is taking its toll, with 3,037 cases and 56 deaths. Concerns about political freedoms in Thailand have recently focused on the democratic validity of 2019’s election, in which ex-general Prayut Chan-o-Cha remained Prime Minister. His government has faced criticism for failing to act quickly. Sweeping travel bans and limits on public gatherings were not introduced until April, which opposition party Pheu Thai blamed on insufficient cooperation between government ministries. Were Thailand more economically capable, with a more coordinated democratic government, they may have been able to better capitalise on their apparently excellent health security.
Neither Vietnam’s large population (just under 100 million), nor their shared border with China, have stopped them from reporting only 324 cases and, remarkably, zero deaths. The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) maintains strict control over much of Vietnamese life – reflected in their abysmal World Press Freedom Index score – yet has been lauded for its rapid response. Vietnam effectively closed its border with China at the start of February and vastly increased the number of tests and testing facilities. The CPV’s opacity raises concerns about the reliability of case numbers; local reports reveal hospitals will be penalised if they publish case numbers independently of the Health Ministry. Nonetheless, Vietnam’s successful navigation of the COVID-19 crisis is enviable.
What should ASEAN do?
ASEAN states have individually responded to COVID-19 within the confines of their state borders and capabilities. It is clear that in some instances, levels of press freedom and health security have influenced governments’ reactions in grappling with the virus. In many instances, we have seen that ASEAN states tend to limit the ability of news outlets to report on their respective governments’ handling of COVID-19. This may obscure the true severity of the crisis, suggesting that the number of reported cases could be higher in the region as a whole. Therefore, ASEAN states need to go beyond their alliance on paper and actively work towards being more collaborative by sharing resources.
Daweena Tia Motwany is currently a Research Assistant at Sustineo and a Sub-editor at ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership.
Ben Eliasaf is a Master of International Relations (Advanced) research student and academic tutor at the Australian National University’s Department of International Relations.