How Asia Became a Delta Hotspot


Shortly after Jarrett Wrisley arrived in Bangkok in 2008, the global financial crisis hit the media industry, forcing the media to cut budgets. Wrisley, a food and travel journalist, saw his writing opportunities dwindle rapidly, so he turned to the only other thing he could do: cook. In September 2010, Wrisley opened Soul Food Mahanakorn, serving northern and northeastern Thai dishes in the capital’s trendy Thonglor district. The restaurant has helped Bangkok, always renowned for its street food, establish itself as a lively upscale challenger to more established regional food destinations such as Hong Kong and Singapore. Sporadic upheavals including a coup, riots and occasional flooding have not hampered the seemingly endless flow of visitors to the country: In 2019, Thailand hosted around 40 million foreign tourists.

But on January 13, 2020, a traveler from Wuhan visiting Thailand tested positive for COVID-19, marking the first confirmed case outside of China. Bangkok restaurants, sensing the disease could be a major event for the industry, have complied with the restrictions, expecting to reappear in a few months, Wrisley told me. But over the months, he said, the government’s messages “have become very, very confused.” There have been lockdowns, random alcohol bans, and limited support for the industry, leaving restaurateurs largely to fend for themselves. This summer, Wrisley, a former Atlantic contributor, has shut down Soul Food Mahanakorn for good. “My wife and I put everything into our business, so let our staff who have been with us for a decade close the doors for the last time,” he said, “I will never forget that feeling.”

Since the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which destroyed several Southeast Asian economies, development and growth in the region have been robust, albeit hesitantly and unevenly. Those who are optimistic about the region have a well-established sales pitch: the countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional bloc, have a combined huge population (some 650 million people) and a mind-boggling cumulative gross domestic amount. product ($ 2.8 trillion). In recent years, mentions of the average age of young residents and the name drops of one of Indonesia’s tech unicorns have updated the talking points for the more online era.

Former President Barack Obama, although he was never able to fully pivot the United States to Asia as he envisioned, was a frequent visitor to the region, often recounting his youth in Indonesia. After Southeast Asia was largely ignored by the Trump administration, President Joe Biden began to pay more attention to it: Vice President Kamala Harris began a visit to Singapore and Vietnam this week. -end. Those who have long called on the United States to engage in the region hope that after the United States unceremoniously extracts the United States from Afghanistan, that goal can finally be achieved.

Yet if that happens, the tale defenders can present about this part of the world isn’t so rosy anymore. A region that was on a seemingly relentless upward trajectory has seen its prospects for progress severely damaged by the coronavirus.

In the early stages of the pandemic last year, many countries in Southeast Asia achieved enviable success, avoiding large-scale epidemics and mass deaths. But the arrival of the much more transmissible Delta variant this summer and the lack of vaccine availability have increased cases. These factors, combined with poor surveillance and easy movement between countries, often unofficially, have meant that Southeast Asia “is emerging as a new regional hot spot in the global fight against COVID. -19, “wrote a group of experts this week in the medical journal. Natural medicine. They warned that part of the world “could delay global success in controlling COVID-19 to its last mile.”

This growing health crisis has encountered, and in some cases has been exacerbated, growing political discontent. The Burmese military has killed more than 1,000 people since it staged a disastrous coup in February that further deteriorated the country’s health system. The Malaysian prime minister has resigned amid widespread criticism over his handling of the pandemic. Protests continue almost daily in Thailand against the government’s response to COVID-19. The change of government in Vietnam slowed down vaccination plans there.

Economically, the new wave of infections and the restrictions governments have imposed to stop the spread of the virus are blocking recoveries, according to Roland Rajah, senior economist and director of the international economics program at the Lowy Institute, a in Australia. thinking group. While the latest wave doesn’t totally derail the region, “it will certainly set it back by a big margin,” he told me. “Many people who were previously lifted out of poverty and increasingly become middle-class consumers will have lost their jobs and livelihoods and will be pushed back. “

Myanmar is perhaps the most extreme example of this change. The country began a process of economic liberalization and partial democratic development in 2011. It re-engaged with the United States after decades as an outcast, a development touted as an emblematic foreign policy victory by the administration. Obama. But accusations of genocide against the military, the February coup and the rampant spread of COVID-19 have wiped out almost every gain of the past decade, both political and economic. A monitor released by the World Bank last month warned of an 18% contraction in the country’s economy. Coupled with weak growth over the previous year, the economy is about 30% smaller than it would have been if COVID-19 had not spread and the military takeover had not not happened. Some 1 million jobs could be lost.

A smoldering banking crisis since the coup has caused people to wait for hours, often in vain, for a limited amount of money from banks and ATMs. Some people, seeing an opportunity to make money from the ongoing crisis, act as currency brokers (while pocketing high fees), promoting the business in a Facebook group created for people who keep their money. money deposited in one of the largest banks in the country. At the same time, the healthcare system which was already extremely weak due to decades of underinvestment has struggled to keep pace with the Delta variant. Calls for oxygen and drug resale messages were common on social media at the height of a recent surge in cases.

Other parts of the region face different challenges but seem likely to suffer the same fate. Nicholas Mapa, senior economist at ING Bank Manila, told me he expected economic growth in the Philippines to stagnate and reverse due to the lockdown measures reinstated from April to mid-May. The country depends on remittances, tourism and the service industry, areas particularly affected by the pandemic. Indonesia, which has recorded 3.8 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 118,833 deaths (both of which are vastly underestimated), saw its economy contract last year for the first time since the late 1990s when the Asian financial crisis hit. The ensuing rebound is now likely to be weighed down by the new wave driven by Delta. In Vietnam, the disruption caused by ongoing prevention measures was particularly felt in the business centers of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where manufacturing was affected, leading to cuts and job losses. The country’s government, hailed in the early stages of the coronavirus crisis for its success in containing infections and deaths, “applied pretty much the same measures, not much different from what it did in the early stages. pandemic – what’s the problem, ”says Linh Nguyen, associate director of consultancy firm Control Risks. Vietnam, she told me, should have bought and administered vaccines more aggressively.

Thailand, which has long relied heavily on tourism, has experimented with a series of creative programs aimed at reviving the hard-hit sector. Following a golf quarantine program that allowed golfers to wait until the end of their isolation at a resort on the links, the country last month launched a travel bubble in Phuket, the largest island of the country, which was to be a first step towards normality. The ‘Phuket sandbox’, as it has been dubbed, is an intriguing experience of tourism for a world altered by disease: vaccinated travelers from countries deemed to be at low risk may ignore the 14-day quarantine imposed elsewhere in France. Thailand and roam the island freely. While ongoing, the results have been decidedly mixed, complicated by a recent record increase in COVID-19 cases and associated deaths.

There has been some recovery in business, Arthon Uengprasert, who runs a chain of spas across the island, told me, but foot traffic has yet to return to the streets. Cheaper hotels suffer as luxury resorts offer discounted prices, he said. Chinese tourists, in particular, who he said made up 60 to 70 percent of his customers, did not return. (Beijing continues to pursue a “COVID-Zero” strategy to deal with the pandemic, a policy that has kept the country largely closed, and even domestic travel at times suspended and instant closures announced.) The increase in customer numbers Arthon has seen the past two months, it is “better than nothing”, he told me, but new cases threaten the program and “a lot of people in Phuket don’t feel that this program sandbox really helped “.

These economic struggles will have ripple effects. “Unemployment is not only an economic problem but also poses serious social problems,” said Nguyen of Control Risks. She was referring to Vietnam, but the point applies more broadly. In Bangkok, protests against the government, which seized power in a coup in 2014, were re-energized after a hiatus. The demonstrators demand the resignation of the Prime Minister. Much of the anger is directed at the authorities and their agitated response to the outbreak. In recent weeks, protesters have clashed with police, who have used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them.

“This government is deeply cynical and completely incompetent, and they lack the faith of the people,” Wrisley, the restaurateur told me. “There is a very serious and disturbing amount of discontent. “

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