How COVID-19 Changed Asia/ A year ago, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
Since it burst into the headlines in Wuhan, China, the virus has infected over 118 million people worldwide, killing 2.6 million.
Beyond that, however, the associated lockdowns have devastated economies and shaken up established political orders – or solidified them in countries that have fared relatively well.
Numerous analysts have identified the pandemic as a turning point in world history,
with ramifications for everything from climate change to the global balance of power.
How has the world’s worst pandemic in a century changed the Asia-Pacific region? Below, we summarize the shifts underway in East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia.
COVID-19 burst onto the scene
Over a year since COVID-19 burst onto the scene, the East Asian region has weathered the storm remarkably well.
The hard data of case counts and deaths puts the region among the world’s top performers: Japan has the most cases in the region at 443,000 as of March 11, with Taiwan boasting the fewest, at just 978.
China, where COVID-19 was first detected, escaped with under 100,000 cases in total, if we take the official count as face value (and even if we don’t,
it seems clear that the scale of deaths and hospitalizations was under control by the early spring of 2020, when things were just ramping up in other countries).
But even in East Asia, where the direct damage in terms of infections, deaths,
and hospitalizations has been limited, COVID-19 has left a definite mark in other ways.
Politically, COVID-19 has toppled some leaders. The pandemic may have helped bring an end to the political career of Abe Shinzo, Japan’s longest-serving prime minster.
He stepped down in September 2020 due to health concerns, but speculation is rife that public criticism over his government’s COVID-19 response played a role as well.
In Mongolia, protests overs the government’s pandemic management led to the shock resignation of Prime Minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa in January 2021, leading to the rise of a leader from a new generation.
South Korea’s leaders enjoyed
Meanwhile, South Korea’s leaders enjoyed a political boost thanks to the government’s relatively successful handling of the pandemic.
President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party was able to lock in a supermajority the April 2020 legislative elections,
in part because of its deft COVID-19 response.
Taiwan in particular has been making the most of its moment in the sun, as its government receives rare attention on the world stage for something other than cross-strait relations.
Taipei’s successful handling of the pandemic led to increased focus on its exclusion from the World Health Organization,
and a highly publicized (albeit unsuccessful) campaign to restore its observer status.
More recently, however, delayed vaccine campaigns in Japan, South Korea,
and Taiwan have brought more negative attention to their governments as other developed countries surge ahead.
China is a special case
While its government eventually pivoted to a strict policy of localized lockdowns, mass testing,
and technology tracking to contain the spread of the disease, the initial botched handling has not been forgotten.
As just one example, Chinese netizens continue to post mournful messages on the Weibo page of Dr. Li Wenliang,
who attempted to warn his colleagues about the new virus, only to be summoned for questioning by the police.
His death from COVID-19 in February 2020 sparked a national wave of grief and anger,
highlighted by the brief blooming of the hashtag #IWantFreeSpeech.
It’s easy to forget this anger amid the pride engendered by China’s eventual success.
But Chinese citizens – particularly the residents of Wuhan, the pandemic’s first epicenter – lived with the direct reality of the confusion
caused by government lies and obfuscation in the early days of 2020, and they remember.
Economically, the pandemic has had even more of an impact.
China has boasted about being the only major world economy to post growth in 2020, but the paltry 2.3 percent
rise in GDP is a major blow, even if things could have been much, much worse.
Taiwan did slightly better, with just below 3 percent GDP growth, while Japan, Mongolia,
and South Korea all registered contractions (4.8 percent, 5.3 percent, and 1 percent respectively).
North Korea, which slammed its borders shut in early 2020 and still has not reopened them,
may have suffered the most of any economy in the region, although hard data is hard to come by.
The devastation was enough to spark a rare tearful apology for economic failure from leader Kim Jong Un,
but he has responded by doubling down on government control and military programs.
the COVID-19 crisis plunged U.S.-China relations to a historic
Finally, the COVID-19 crisis plunged U.S.-China relations to a historic low not seen since they established diplomatic ties in 1979.
The pandemic essentially unleashed the most hawkish members of the former Trump administration, spearheaded by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to freely criticize China, from conspiracy theories alleging the virus was created in a Chinese lab to strident complaints about long-standing concerns like human rights and IP theft.
And the United States is not alone: from Europe to Southeast Asia, public views of China have noticeably soured over the past year. Whether that’s due directly to the pandemic or to China’s highly publicized actions to quell dissent in Hong Kong and Xinjiang is harder to say, however.
The rise in U.S.-China tensions in particular has impacted the diplomatic contours of the entire region. While China’s leaders officially leave the door open for a return to the “right path”
of U.S.-China relations, they are adamant that Beijing will not budge on its “core issues” – and are preparing, in their own way, for decoupling.
And the downturn in U.S.-China relations has led to a corresponding freeze in cross-strait relations, as China takes aim at Taiwan.
Meanwhile, in early 2020, South Korea and Japan were both on the cusp of a major step forward in relations with China.
Now, Seoul and Tokyo join the ranks of regional countries increasingly nervous about what it might mean to be forced to choose between their top security and economic partners.
Compared to many other parts of the world, the nations of Southeast Asia have weathered the pandemic year with remarkable, and somewhat unexpected, success.
Only four of the region’s 11 nations – Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Myanmar –
had recorded more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19 cases as of March 11,
the anniversary of the pandemic, and only five sat in the top 100 nations for total COVID-19 cases.
Even the Philippines and Indonesia, which have seen the region’s most serious outbreaks, sit outside the circles of the world’s worst affected nations.
Indonesia has recorded the 18th most cases globally, and the Philippines currently sits in 30th place,
yet neither is in the top 100 for total infections per capita.
At the same time, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei, and Timor-Leste have recorded caseloads numbering merely in the hundreds,
Vietnam’s success in swiftly containing COVID-19
while Vietnam’s success in swiftly containing COVID-19 has seen it accrue global plaudits and invaluable “soft power” reserves.
The reason for Southeast Asian nations’ relatively strong showing,
given the ramshackle health infrastructure in many parts of the region, remains something of a mystery.
A number of theories have been adduced, from the region’s tropical climate to the prevalence of social norms
(mask wearing, the lack of handshaking, etc.) that have stemmed the spread of the disease.
It is possible that an as-yet-unknown scientific factor has aided some of Southeast Asian nations; preparation and timely lockdowns have also no doubt played a role, as has simple luck.
Yet COVID-19 has nonetheless shaped Southeast Asia in important ways over the past year. The pandemic has triggered the most severe economic recession since the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.
Every economy in the region bar that of Vietnam contracted during the pandemic year, led by a whopping 9.5 percent drop in the Philippines and 6.1 percent in tourism-dependent Thailand.
Indeed, in many countries, the economic downturn of the pandemic may end up eclipsing the public health cost.
The statistics fail to communicate the personal hardship that has resulted from COVID-19.
In September, the World Bank predicted that the number of poor people in Asia is set to rise for the first time in 20 years, and that a combination of “sickness, food insecurity,
job losses, and school closures could lead to the erosion of human capital and earning losses that last a lifetime.”
As in nearly every country, this has fallen most heavily on marginalized groups, including women,
migrant workers, and those eking out a living in the informal sectors of the region’s economies.
Although Southeast Asia’s economies are expected to return to positive growth this year,
the scale and speed of the recovery is highly dependent on the efficacy of governments’ vaccination campaigns.
All 11 nations have now begun distributing vaccines. Most have begun with frontline health workers and the elderly, while heads of government have received early doses, often on live television,
in order to encourage the public to embrace the new vaccines.
But vaccine rollouts are already facing hurdles, from the challenge of procuring enough
doses to the difficulties posed by logistics and cost of distributing them into the most remote corners of the region.
ASEAN vaccine certificate
Recently announced plans for a possible ASEAN vaccine certificate will be an important step in the region’s recovery,
but until widespread vaccine coverage is reached,
present gains will remain fragile and subject to sudden reversals.
Myanmar saw spikes late in 2020, after months of low case numbers,
which now threaten to spiral out of control in the midst of the country’s deteriorating political crisis.
Meanwhile, Cambodia is currently battling its first serious outbreak of the disease.
set in motion political and economic forces
Even once vaccination is complete, it is likely that the pandemic has set in motion political and economic forces that will likely continue to echo through the coming decade.
One result has been to accelerate Vietnam’s rise and increase its regional strategic prominence.
It is now the fourth-largest economy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the pandemic year saw it eclipse the Philippines in terms of per capita GDP, with Indonesia now within its sights.
This has emboldened Vietnam’s communist leadership to take a more active role on the regional and global stage.
COVID-19 also underscored the brute fact of Southeast Asia’s geographic proximity to and economic entwinement with a rising China, whose own economic recovery will be important in the region’s attempt to pull itself from the pandemic slump.
The likely result will be a growing tension between Southeast Asian nations’ concern about Beijing’s growing power and belligerence, and the desire to benefit from economic partnership with their giant regional neighbor.
The domestic effects in many countries will be profound, yet hard to predict in their specifics. Economically, the disease has increased concentrations of income and economic power.
Politically, it has helped accelerate the reactionary wave of the past decade, giving autocratic leaders from the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte to Cambodia’s Hun Sen a pretext to equip themselves with sweeping new powers, and impose curbs on political opponents.
This trend has been opposed by the emergence of an incipient regional anti-authoritarian protest movement, setting the stage for political crises in many Southeast Asian countries.