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Opinion

The world must stand by Southeast Asia in its fight against COVID

Region is struggling to defend itself against new COVID outbreaks

| Southeast Asia
A woman receives an injection of the COVID vaccine in Jakarta on June 10: without access to more vaccines, Southeast Asia won't be able to move past the acute phase of the pandemic.   © AP

Richard Maude is a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute and Kevin Rudd is president of the Asia Society and a former prime minister of Australia.

The situation in India is a stark warning of what happens when new COVID variants rip through vulnerable communities.

Today, a surge in infections in Southeast Asia that is costing lives and threatening to derail recovery from last year's painful recession also demands global attention.

As the highly contagious Indian and U.K. variants of COVID take root, the developed world needs to do more than hold its breath and hope Southeast Asia can once again fend off a conflagration in a region of some 675 million people.

After a long period of relative success in containing the pandemic, even the Southeast Asian countries with the best records are struggling to defend themselves against new outbreaks.

Thailand and the Philippines posted record numbers of new infections and deaths in recent weeks. So too Malaysia, forcing the nation back into lockdown.

Vietnam, one of only three Southeast Asian economies that managed to keep growing last year through disciplined management of the pandemic, is now throwing everything at small but persistent new outbreaks in its industrial heartland.

In Indonesia, the pandemic burns on, neither raging uncontrollably nor fading. And new cases spiked following the Idul Fitri holidays, worrying authorities.

In Myanmar, the military's disastrous grab for power has pushed the economy back down on its knees and smashed the public health system, leaving it more vulnerable than ever.

Testing, contact tracing, social distancing and movement controls must remain part of Southeast Asia's armory for fighting the pandemic for the foreseeable future.

But without urgent access to more vaccines, Southeast Asia won't be able to move past the acute phase of the pandemic, and many more lives will be lost.

Most of the region is fighting the vaccination battle with one arm tied behind its back, hindered by supply shortages, vaccine hesitancy, capacity constraints and -- for Southeast Asia's lower-income countries -- poverty.

While Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia are seeking to develop their own vaccines, this will obviously take time.

Without new global sources of vaccine production and immediate additional donor support, it therefore seems unlikely that most Southeast Asian countries will have vaccinated significant percentages of their populations by the end of 2021, and perhaps not even well into 2022.

Will this help come? In recent weeks, there have been welcome signs of the global ambition needed to accelerate vaccination programs in the developing world.

With vaccination rates rising in the United States, the Biden Administration has dramatically stepped up U.S. global leadership on the pandemic, beginning with a down payment of 80 million donated doses and now committing to purchase and donate a further 500 million doses to lower-income countries.

At the European Union and Group of 20's global health summit on May 21, the EU announced it would donate 100 million doses of vaccines to low- and middle-income countries, including through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility, the World Health Organization-led international consortium for equitable access to vaccines. Major manufacturers also pledged additional no profit and lower price vaccines.

And the COVAX summit in Japan on June 2 raised another $2.4 billion, enough for COVAX to secure 1.8 billion free vaccine doses for lower-income countries in 2021 and early 2022.

This is a start, but developing countries are so far behind wealthy nations that there is more to be done.

Excess supplies of vaccines from wealthy countries need to be shipped urgently. In some countries, ramping up supply will need to be matched with much more help to actually get vaccines into arms.

And despite these new donor pledges, there is still an urgent need for more grant financing to fight the pandemic globally.

As the World Bank and IMF leadership have said, as much as $50 billion of financing is needed to achieve more equitable access for vaccines, tests and treatments.

Moreover, as it has been elsewhere in the world, the health crisis in Southeast Asia in 2020 was also an economic crisis. Many Southeast Asian nations now need more than vaccines from the international community to recover lost growth.

Higher levels of poverty and inequality, investment foregone, the loss of human capital and the cost of collapsing small businesses could take years to overcome.

Women, especially the millions working in Southeast Asia's informal sector and in tourism and service jobs, have been disproportionately affected.

Villagers stand behind a lockdown barrier to ask for food donations in Phnom Penh on Apr. 30: women have been disproportionately affected.   © Reuters

The World Bank estimates that unless this deeper damage is addressed, growth in East Asia and the Pacific, excluding China, could be as much as 1.8 percentage points lower than pre-COVID projections, even accounting for accelerating digitization and the use of new technologies.

There are things Southeast Asian countries can continue to do to help themselves, but the poorest nations -- like East Timor, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, which post-coup teeters on the edge of state collapse -- will need more donor support.

Without this additional aid, parts of Southeast Asia could face what the IMF has described as a "great divergence" -- faltering economic recoveries and a falling away of long-term economic growth, pushing even further into the distance convergence with developed countries.

The time to act in support of this vitally important region at the economic and strategic crossroads of Asia -- to save lives through vaccines and support sustainable economic recovery -- is now.

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