BANGKOK -- Some Southeast Asian countries have begun cautious preparations for lifting coronavirus-related restrictions on activity as new cases decline, but they are reluctant to go as far as Vietnam in easing their guard.
Vietnam ended social distancing measures Wednesday except in some districts of Hanoi. The government judged that no provinces are at high risk for spreading infection after reporting no new cases for seven straight days.
Southeast Asia had confirmed 40,742 cases of COVID-19 as of Monday, with 1,447 fatalities. The region accounted for only 1.3% of confirmed cases globally, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines imposed some level of restrictions after infections began to climb.
Thailand reported nine new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, its first single-digit daily increase since March 14. Yet the government decided to extend its state of emergency until May 31 at a cabinet meeting Tuesday, according to Natapanu Nopakun, deputy spokesperson at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and deputy director-general with the Department of Information. The decree was set to expire Thursday.
The country shut down gathering places such as shopping malls and restaurants, imposed a curfew from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., banned sales of alcohol, closed beaches and parks, and limited travel across provinces. Thailand also banned the arrival of international passenger flights. On Tuesday, the cabinet extended the curfew, the prohibition on public gatherings and limits on movement between provinces as well.
The Ministry of Culture proposed to postpone holidays in May to discourage people from gathering and traveling, but the proposal was rejected by the cabinet. Thailand will celebrate the Labor Day on May 1, the anniversary of King Maha Vajiralongkorn's Coronation on May 4, and Buddhist holiday Visakha Bucha Day on May 6.
Many of these measures rely on the state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha for their legality, and the government insists that the outbreak has not come under complete control. Thailand's total confirmed cases reached 2,931 as of Monday, with 52 fatalities.
But preparations for easing restrictions are visible. "The cabinet is considering decreasing the level of intensity and scope of prohibitions that affect the normal operation of businesses," said Natapanu. "The measures will be constantly and gradually reviewed, based on the prevailing situations, which will be announced in due course," he added.
Local media reported that Thailand may allow the reopening of some suspended businesses such as barbershops, community markets and restaurants without alcohol sales. The Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand ordered 20 domestic and foreign airline companies to prepare for restarting operations within the country on Friday.
Taweesilp Visanuyothin, spokesperson for the government's Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration, said on April 20 that provinces with no virus cases were placed high on the list for easing restrictions.
Bangkok and Phuket remain the cities with the most infections in the kingdom, and they likely will be among the last to have preventive measures lifted.
Thira Woratnarat, an assistant professor at Chulalongkorn University's faculty of medicine, sent a letter to Prayuth on April 20, opposing any move to lift the measures province by province.
Easing restrictions only in certain provinces will cause a "super-migration" of people seeking more freedom, Thira asserted, exacerbating the epidemic.
"Restrictions should be eased only when we are actually ready," he said. "If the transmission comes back in a second wave, controlling the virus will be twice as hard."
Malaysia and the Philippines both report fewer cases during the past seven days ending Monday than in the previous seven days.
Yet Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Thursday extended the government's order controlling movement nationwide until May 12 -- the third extension. On Friday, the Philippines extended its lockdown in Metro Manila and other high-risk areas until May 15, while hinting at a loosening of strict quarantine measures in less affected areas.
The epidemics in Singapore and Indonesia started more slowly than in other Southeast Asian economies, and the two countries are still far from containing their outbreaks.
Singapore, which has the second-smallest population in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has recorded the most COVID-19 cases among the 10 countries. The city-state struggled to control the epidemic, mainly among migrant workers.
Singapore found 6,409 cases in the past seven days ending Monday, more than the total reported among other ASEAN members during the period. The city-state has extended its soft lockdown measures, called a circuit breaker, until June 1. The measures were supposed to end May 4.
Indonesia reported over 2,000 cases for two weeks in a row, as the Muslim-majority country began the holy month of Ramadan on April 23. Jakarta extended stringent social distancing rules in the capital city until May 22. These include work-from-home requirements and a ban on gatherings of more than five people.
These measures debuted April 10 and were to end Thursday. But the government feared Ramadan would bring an exodus of people to the countryside from Jakarta, which has been the local epicenter of the pandemic. Indonesia also suspended all domestic flights and ferry operations.
Businesses face difficulty returning to normal even if coronavirus restrictions are lifted country by country.
Production has been disrupted at an international auto company in Thailand as parts imports from Malaysia were halted owing to the lockdown, according to local sources. Japanese restaurants in central Bangkok have said they may be unable to provide the same quality of food, due to difficulties in importing fresh products from Japan.