Images in the pages and website of this and other news organisations this week illustrate starkly the human cost and economic hardship exacted by the worsening pandemic in South-east Asia. In one, the coffin of a man who died of Covid-19 is carried by cemetery workers in Indonesia, where infections and deaths have soared, with more than 3.16 million cases and 83,000 deaths. Others such as a small roadside food bank in Pahang, Malaysia, and a yellow flag outside a home appealing for help in Yangon, Myanmar show the increasing desperation of the poor who fall further into poverty with each new wave of the disease.
South-east Asia has become a new epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic with several countries registering record numbers of cases and deaths as the region is hit by the double whammy of the more contagious Delta variant and a slow vaccine roll-out. This has led to restrictive measures to slow the infection that, in turn, are causing growing economic hardships as factories and businesses are shuttered and jobs are curbed or lost.
Developing economies, including those in South-east Asia, are particularly vulnerable to the virus and its more contagious variants because of their limited access to Covid-19 vaccines. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that vaccine access has become the principal fault line along which the global recovery splits into two blocs: While some countries can look forward to further normalisation of activity later this year, many others still face resurgent infections and rising Covid-19 death tolls. While the IMF increased the growth forecast for advanced economies which have ready access to vaccines, it has lowered the outlook for emerging and developing economies. However, as has been pointed out time and again, recovery is not assured for any nation so long as the virus is circulating elsewhere.
There needs to be continued concerted effort to redress vaccine inequity. Vaccination rates in South-east Asia are low - around 5 per cent are fully vaccinated in Indonesia, 3 per cent in the Philippines and 5 per cent in Thailand. Asean could do more to ease the public health crisis and raise vaccination rates. Rich economies could also do their part as the faster the pandemic ends the faster they will recover.
Beyond tackling the immediate issue of vaccine access for developing countries, the longer- term problem of increased inequality within and between nations that the pandemic has wrought needs attention too. This is as the pandemic is undoing the progress made in poverty reduction in developing nations. Any recovery plan for the region and individual countries needs to take into account the rise in poverty and the growing gap between the rich and poor. It needs to live up to the slogan of the United Nations sustainable development goals: that no one should be left behind.