Conference on “Covid-19 in Southeast Asia 2020-2022: Restriction, Relief, Recovery”

In this hybrid conference, researchers from across Southeast Asia presented their findings and analyses of the manifold aspects of Covid-19.


28-29 July 2022, Thursday-Friday – This conference began with welcome remarks by Mr. Choi Shing Kwok, Director and CEO of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. The speech provided some context to the conference theme. The breadth and depth of the pandemic’s impacts and the policy responses to it are unparalleled in history, encompassing restrictions on mobility and economic activity, provision of relief and stimulus, and complex measures to facilitate recovery. The papers presented at the conference have researched this defining issue of these times, to investigate what has happened and what lessons to be learned, both from the perspective of unique country experiences and cross-country comparisons. Mr. Choi also explained the background and structure of the conference, which is comprised of research papers of work previously presented in a webinar series running from October 2021 to February 2022, and arranged by thematic panels based on Southeast Asia’s diversity of geography, demography, economic development and political systems.

This conference is supported by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

Mr Choi Shing Kwok (left) and Mr Andreas Klein (right) delivered the Welcome Remarks. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

PANEL 1 – Covid-19 in the Transition Economies: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar

Pictured on the top left is the first panel, Teng Delux and Phouphet Kyiphilavong, together with speakers joining online: Sandii Lwin, Kyaw San Wai and Pen Socheata. Moe Thuzar moderated the panel. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Ms. Pen Socheata opened the first panel by discussing Cambodia’s relatively successful attempt in curbing the spread of Covid-19. Despite a serious infection wave known as the “February 20 incident”, the country’s effective political leadership and timely intervention policies mitigated hospitalisation and death rates. However, rising cases globally has had a devastating effect on socio-economic development, putting 4.5 million Cambodians at risk of falling back into poverty. Cambodia’s economy has not fared well, registering negative growth in 2020 after high GDP growth for more than two decades.

Dr. Phouphet Kyiphilavong followed up with an evaluation of Lao PDR’s performance. The nation had implemented strict lockdowns and containment measures since March 2020 with far-reaching effects on many micro and small businesses. Coupled with long-standing fiscal budget and current account deficits, Dr. Kyiphilavong emphasised that the Lao economy is at risk of falling into greater debt. He also mentioned the Lao government is discussing the country’s current predicament with countries such as China.

Next, Ms. Sandii Lwin and her team from Myanmar presented virtually on the country’s pandemic response, highlighting the differences before and after the February 1st coup. Myanmar experienced four distinct Covid-19 waves since March 2020, with the third and fourth waves being the most serious. Economic and vaccination interventions were delayed due to the ongoing political crisis. Stay-at Home Orders were abandoned after the third wave and disbursement of economic aid rapidly broke down. Much of Myanmar’s healthcare community dedicated themselves to the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), further impeding the country’s efforts to mitigate the effects of Covid-19.

Dr. Jayant Menon, discussant for the panel, summarised briefly the three countries’ unique circumstances, such as Cambodia’s heavy reliance on tourism, Lao PDR’s debt crisis, and Myanmar’s political instability.

PANEL 2 – Policy Coordination in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand: Horizontal and Vertical Dimensions

Panel 2 speakers Dr Yanuar Nugroho, Ms Sofie Syarif, Dr Tricia Yeoh, Dr Punchada Sirivunnabood and Dr Siwage Dharma Negara. With Dr Francis Hutchinson as moderator. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In the second panel, Dr. Yanuar Nugroho kicked off a discussion on Indonesia’s delayed response at the start of the pandemic. He highlighted the inefficacy of President Jokowi’s government and poor communication with Indonesians as reasons for public discontent. However, Ms. Sofie Syarif noted that policy intervention and timely vaccinations gradually improved Indonesia’s situation in the later stages, particularly in the second quarter of 2021.

Dr. Tricia Yeoh gave an overview of Malaysia’s performance, emphasising the challenges Malaysia faced in overcoming Covid-19 amidst political turbulence from 2020 to 2022.  The country’s situation spiralled after December 2020 which necessitated robust action. However, the government’s declaration of a state of emergency from 12 January to 1 August 2021 was highly controversial and widely perceived as politically driven. Dr. Yeoh commented that Malaysia has implemented a series of mobility controls since 2020, to which Malaysians have expressed discontentment over due to confusing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and preferential treatment towards government officials who flout the rules.

Dr. Punchada Sirivunnabood continued the discussion on Thailand’s vaccination campaign. She explained how the programme rollout had been highly politicised, causing it to be delayed to June 2021. Thailand had procured much of its vaccines from the UK and China, with the latter contributing Sinovac, which became the key to Thailand’s inoculation programme.

Closing the second panel, Dr. Siwage Dharma Negara commented on various aspects of coordination that make it the key challenge faced by all three countries in dealing with the pandemic.

PANEL 3 – Vaccination and Reopening: Country-level and ASEAN Experiences

Panel 3 speakers Dr Tham Siew Yean, Ms Sara Abdullah, and Dr Sanchita Basu Das. With Ms Melinda Martinus as moderator. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

During the third panel, Dr. Tham Siew Yan highlighted the various strategies employed by ASEAN countries in securing vaccines for their respective inoculation campaigns. Vaccines were procured through multiple channels: multilateral, bilateral, donations, private sector purchases, and domestic production. Notably, the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (or COVAX) facility accounted for a significant portion of vaccines received by developing countries, while China and the US contributed the most in donations.

Ms. Sara Abdullah’s presentation covered ASEAN’s role in regional collaboration, particularly on vaccination and reopening. ASEAN had initiated multiple initiatives since the start of the pandemic, such as the Covid-19 ASEAN Response Fund and the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework (ACRF). The former has proven to be one of the more successful regional Covid-19 initiatives in providing financial support to member states to curb the spread of Covid-19, especially when it was tapped to procure vaccines while the latter has offered some prospects for regional coordination of post-pandemic recovery for Southeast Asia in the long term.

Dr. Sanchita Basu Das’ interventions as discussant pointed out the papers’ important contributions to this topic that is most distinctive to the Covid-19 experience, and raised questions for further consideration.

PANEL 4 – Economic Relief and Stimulus: Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand

Panel 4 with speakers Mr Terence Ho, Dr Melati Nungsari, and Dr Archanun Kohpaiboon. Moderated by Dr Cassey Lee. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

On day 2 of the conference, Dr Melati Nungsari started off the fourth panel with a discussion on Malaysia’s Covid-19 economic stimulus packages. Under the PN government, Malaysia had a total of 8 such packages valued at RM530 billion (approximately USD$127 billion). However, disbursement of aid, particularly cash handouts, was sometimes hampered as physical restrictions were imposed on the population. Dr. Nungsari highlighted that stateless Malaysians have had significant difficulties in accessing aid, and that more can be done to ensure they receive adequate assistance.

This was followed by Mr. Terence Ho’s presentation on the Singapore government’s support for households and businesses during the pandemic. Past experiences with SARS and the Global Financial Crisis shaped the nation’s response in dealing with Covid-19. Like most countries, Singapore’s economy was negatively affected by stringent border measures and a nationwide partial lockdown on 3 April 2020 called ‘Circuit Breaker’. Singapore experienced a deep recession in the same year, with real GDP contracting by 4.1%. Nonetheless, a high vaccination rate and timely fiscal and monetary intervention has placed Singapore in a good position for recovery.

Dr. Archanun Kohpaiboon presented on Thailand’s economic relief and stimulus. Up to June 2022, there have been four waves of Covid-19 in the nation, with multiple nationwide lockdowns and zoning restrictions implemented. Thailand reopened its borders on 8 December 2020, subsequently introducing schemes for select tourist destinations, starting with the Phuket sandbox scheme. The country’s fiscal policy responses comprised of two categories – “above the line” measures and liquidity support. The former refers to increases in government expenditures and reductions in tax revenues.

Dr. Lee Hwok Aun responded to the presentations by noting that various elements of policy response can apply to financial crisis situations and making observations about policy similarities and differences, such as in the implementation of wage subsidies.

PANEL 5 – Managing and Mismanaging the Pandemic: Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam

Panel 5 speakers with Dr Siwage Dharma Negara, Dr Arief Ramayandi, Ms Sheena Valenzuela, Dr Dean Dulay, and Dr Nguyen Thu Huong. Moderated by Dr Maria Monica Wihardja. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In the fifth panel, Dr. Arief Ramayandi and Dr. Siwage Dharma Negara presented on Indonesia’s Covid-19 mobility restrictions. Despite multiple rounds of restrictions, the country has not implemented an official lockdown. In the early stages of the pandemic, Indonesia imposed large-scale social restrictions (PSBB). This was later replaced in 2021 by community activities restrictions enforcement (PPKM), which is a more centralised policy.

Ms. Sheena Valenzuela presented on lockdown measures in the Philippines. She highlighted that the government continuously implemented and lifted restrictions even while it lacked funds to support the economy and livelihoods while the nation was under lockdown. The country had one of the longest lockdowns in the world yet achieved fairly unsuccessful results in reducing Covid-19 cases.

Finally, Dr. Nguyen Thu Huong presented on Vietnam’s performance. She credited Vietnam’s initial success in containing the virus to the country’s centralised political system and past experiences with other infectious diseases. Vietnam eventually shifted towards an accelerated vaccination campaign as it adopted a “live together with Covid-19” approach.

Dr. Dean Dulay wrapped up the fifth panel with a critical review of each paper and suggestions for improvement, and commented on the role of vaccination in pandemic response as an issue that cuts across all countries.

The conference audience consisted of the research project members, civil servants, academics, students, and members of the public. The attendees posed questions on the viability of government strategies as long-term solutions, comparisons across all countries with regards to vaccination and mobility restrictions, and plans for the region’s post-pandemic recovery.

Download the Welcome Remarks here.

A group photo of speakers and discussants present at ISEAS for the conference. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)