Denials and delays in southeast Asia and Europe

29 May 2020

The initial underestimation of the Covid-19 virus led to inefficient and inadequate government responses in both regions

Camille Rae Lim
Editorial credit: Junpinzon / Shutterstock.com

While the experiences of the Covid-19 crisis in Asia and Europe differ considerably, a common issue in certain European Union (EU) and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member states has been the initial denial of the seriousness of the virus by government, and the subsequent disastrous delays in implementing health and safety measures, including travel bans, lockdowns, and mass testing for the virus.

Even though experts had been ​warning​ countries about their exposure to a pandemic for years, many governments failed to heed warnings and failed to learn valuable lessons from previous pandemics such as SARS, H1N1, the Swine Flu, and MERS by taking adequate preventative measures. Ultimately, the timeliness of a country’s response became a significant determinant of how effective it has been in protecting its people from the worst consequences of the coronavirus. And those stubborn deniers have learned the hard way that their prevarication has cost lives and hurt economies.

A mixed bag

The ASEAN nations responses to the crisis have been a mixed bag of national strategies. Since ASEAN does not enjoy the same level of integration as the EU, its member states tend to act on their own in a wider range of areas. The ASEAN member states account for nearly 10% of the world’s population and, as of May 28, ​account​ for a total of 84,886 cases of Covid-19 and 1,620 deaths. Singapore has the highest number of recorded cases with 33,249, followed by Indonesia’s 24,538, and the Philippines with 15,588.

Initially, Singapore and Vietnam were the ​most successful​ ​at stemming the tide of the virus. Their leaders made decisions based on medical and scientific evidence, paying attention to public health and medical officials, and implementing measures including public health screening, contact tracing, international and domestic travel bans, and by shutting down non-essential businesses and services.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam effectively and transparently communicated the importance of these measures to citizens. Vietnam, in particular, learned from the mistakes of the SARS outbreak in 2003 and also benefit from a relatively robust public health system. Other countries that had invested in hospitals such as Thailand and Malaysia also fared well, recording low fatality rates.

Singapore’s case is unique because, while it initially seemed poised to be a success story, a second wave of cases occurred that not only increased the levels of infection, but that also exposed the glaring ​economic inequalities​ in the country, particularly the deplorable living conditions of around 300,000 migrant workers.

A tale of two archipelagos

One of the most egregious trends that emerged in some ASEAN and EU member states relates to the initial denial and underestimation of the seriousness of the virus. In Asia, this was especially evident in Indonesia and the Philippines.

The Indonesian government ​insisted​ until early March that it had no cases of infection. Health minister Terawan Agus Putranto went so far as to claim this was due to prayer, while the home affairs minister simply encouraged the public to eat more vegetables (bean sprouts and broccoli in particular) and President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) promoted the effectiveness of traditional herbal remedies in defeating the virus. The government finally acknowledged that the virus had reached the country on March 2 and Jokowi admitted that he had withheld information from the public to “avoid panic.” The government then had to scramble to prepare its health system to cope with the rising number of cases but with the shortage of ventilators and protective equipment for health workers.

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines likewise denied the gravity of the virus even until the middle of March. During a speech on March 11, he ​said​:

“I’ve been told masyado naman takot itong corona na ito,”—“You folks are too scared of this coronavirus epidemic.” “Naniwala pala kayo. Sus”—“Fools – don’t believe it.”

His reluctance to impose travel restrictions on those coming from or going to China was seen as an attempt to maintain strong relations with that country, one of his preferred allies. He was also highly concerned about maintaining the online casino industry in the Philippines, that relies on the custom of thousands of Chinese citizens.

But only days after this dismissive speech, on March 15, Duterte suddenly implemented a month-long lockdown on the capital and surrounding regions, dubbed an “enhanced community quarantine (ECQ)” that was initially to last until April 14, but that has since been extended until May 31. Among the restrictions implemented during the ECQ were a strict curfew, checkpoints between cities and provinces, a halt to public transportation services, quarantine passes for only one person in every household, and the limited operation of essential businesses. Restrictions will only be loosened​ on June 1, once the National Capital Region is placed under “general community quarantine.”

From an initial count of less than 100 cases before the quarantine, the number of infected persons has risen to more than 15,000, with many suspected unconfirmed positive cases and test results. The country is now suffering the harsh social and economic realities of many Filipinos being at high risk of starving to death than of dying from the coronavirus, given the high levels of extreme poverty in the country. The government is now left ​scrambling​ both to enhance capacity in its limited healthcare system to accommodate the growing number of cases, as well as to support the rest of the population who are struggling to survive.

The new epicentre

Two countries in the EU that likewise followed this pattern of initially underestimating the virus’s gravity in early March are ​Spain​ and ​Italy. These countries quick​ became among the European countries with the highest number of Covid-19 cases, effectively shifting the epicenter of the virus from Asia to Europe.

Italy remained in a state of denial throughout February with politicians including the leader of the center-left Partito Democratico (Democratic Party) Nicola Zingaretti having drinks in Milan despite the looming shadow of the virus.

In late March, researchers from the Harvard Business Review ​wrote​:

“The initial state-of-emergency declarations [in Italy] were met by skepticism by both the public and many in policy circles — even though several scientists had been warning of the potential for a catastrophe for weeks.”

There was also a lack of a coordinated approach between the central and regional governments, with several regional representatives calling for a “quicker and more extensive response.”

In Spain, ​Fernando S​imón, the epidemiologist leading the Spanish government’s response asserted ​in February that the country would not have more than “a handful of cases” and even went so far as to say that the virus “was not in Spain.” Six weeks later, he would have to report a daily death toll registering in the hundreds.

Likewise, mass gatherings still took place in the weeks before the country was closed down. On February 19, around 60,000 soccer fans from Spain and Italy attended the Champions League game in Milan that has been cited as the ​catalyst​ for the virus in Lombardy. Then, there were the 120,000 people who marched in downtown Madrid to mark International Women’s Day on March 8, and the 9,000 supporters of the far-right Vox party, who gathered in a former bullring for a political rally.

Days later, on March 14, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez placed the country under a strict ​lockdown​ which lasted until mid-May. However, there was poor coordination between the central and regional governments, with some regional governments having closed schools earlier, leading to crowding in bars and parks as well as families spending time at the beach.

The Spanish government’s late reaction has also exposed the country’s lack of essential medical equipment, including ventilators, protective clothing, and test kits. The Spanish care system was likewise ​revealed​ to be “understaffed, unprepared, and quickly overwhelmed.”

But after an extended lockdown period, both Spain and Italy began to ​ease​ restrictions at the beginning of May. Small shops were allowed to open and restaurants would continue to serve takeaways. But the wearing of face masks would be required as well as the requirement for social distancing precautions and of practicing proper hygiene such as frequent handwashing.

Sanchez said:

“We’re winning the battle against the epidemic, but the cost in lives and sacrifices has been very high…The virus isn’t going anywhere. It’s still there, lying in wait, and so we have to be prepared to react and, logically, to be able to manage this transition towards a new normality.”

Delays cost lives

Delayed reaction to the virus has undoubtedly cost lives and the real tragedy is that it often isn’t the government leaders who are ultimately paying the price, but thousands of their own citizens.

While the cases of Indonesia, the Philippines, Spain, and Italy are now cautionary tales against ignoring early warning signs from medical experts, “better late than never” is meagre consolation to those who have lost loved ones to this disease. But as governments rush to rectify their mistakes, it remains to be seen if these efforts will be truly effective in dealing with the crisis in the long-term.