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COVID Recovery Index: Delta strain and late jabs hold ASEAN back

Vietnam, Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand occupy last four spots

A worker wearing personal protective equipment sprays a street in Hanoi with disinfectant as Vietnam struggles to contain COVID-19.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Southeast Asian countries attempting to escape the COVID-19 quagmire are struggling to overcome the fast-spreading delta variant and late vaccinations that left them more exposed, Nikkei's updated COVID-19 Recovery Index shows.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand occupy the last four spots on the latest list, with Malaysia seventh from the bottom.

The index assesses more than 120 countries and regions on infection management, vaccine rollouts and social mobility. The higher the ranking, the closer a place is to recovery -- with low infection numbers, higher inoculation rates and/or less-strict social distancing measures.

For the second time, Vietnam is stuck at the bottom. The country was a superstar of pandemic containment until June, but now continues to suffer record infections and deaths. More than 87,000 new cases were reported during the last week of August -- nearly 40% of them in Ho Chi Minh City, which also accounted for about 80% of the national death toll, according to the World Health Organization.

Strict public health and social distancing measures remain in place across major cities, including a stay-at-home order and mass testing operations. Vietnam has even deployed military troops to support logistics and food deliveries in hot spots, including Ho Chi Minh City and the major manufacturing hub of Binh Duong Province.

The Philippines, for its part, now sits in the second-last spot, down 14 places from the July ranking. The country reported a record 22,366 infections on Monday amid a new wave of cases driven by the delta strain. Its capital region and some provinces are under the second-highest level of coronavirus restrictions until next Tuesday.

Thailand rose two places from the bottom to 118th. Its daily case count has declined from the peak but remains elevated. Nevertheless, the Thai government lifted most restrictions on retail and dining on Wednesday in an effort to revive the economy. The authorities have also allowed some domestic flights to and from Bangkok and other high-risk areas to resume. Flights had been down over 95% compared to pre-pandemic levels in August, according to Cirium, an aviation data and analytics company.

On the other hand, two Association of Southeast Asian Nations states have shown significant improvement in coping with the pandemic. Cambodia jumped 30 places to 52nd, with case numbers declining and the vaccination drive progressing. The country has the second-highest inoculation rate in the region, only after Singapore. As of Tuesday, over half its population was fully vaccinated, according to the statistics website Our World in Data.

Indonesia rose to 92nd from 114th, though its recovery is uneven geographically. The capital, Jakarta, is set to remove restrictions over the coming weeks as cases continue to decline and half of residents are fully vaccinated. But concerns remain across the rest of the sprawling archipelago, especially in remote regions where infections are surging and jabs are scarce.

Moreover, Indonesia's death rate stood at 3.57% as of the end of August, according to Our World in Data -- higher than most other countries worldwide but comparable to some of its neighbors that are lagging in vaccinations. Less than 4% of the populations are fully vaccinated in Myanmar and Vietnam, where the fatality rates are 3.85% and 2.88%, respectively.

In Oceania, meanwhile, New Zealand plunged 78 places from the No. 2 spot. The country lost nine points in infection management and 18.5 points in social mobility, due to the latest outbreak and the strict lockdown imposed to stop it. Australia also fell to 84th from 45th, amid its battle with delta and record infections.

Some countries that were quick to vaccinate are also struggling with resurgent cases, pulling them down in the rankings. Israel is now in 54th place while the U.S. is in 74th. Both have moved to offer booster shots to enhance protection.

The Economist Intelligence Unit recently brought forward its timelines for Asia's vaccination rollouts, saying many countries are now vaccinating faster than expected. However, it added that because the majority of Asian economies are using vaccines with relatively low efficacy, greater coverage is needed to achieve herd immunity and booster shots will also be necessary.

"Our outlook, as well as lower tolerance of COVID-19 in Asia, suggests that restrictions such as social distancing, lockdowns and border controls will remain in use in most of the region throughout 2021-22," the EIU said.

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