Pandemic Insights from Southeast Asia

Sampa Kundu

COVID-19 in Southeast Asia: Insights for a Post-Pandemic World is a combination of chapters contributed by experts from multiple disciplines to understand various nuances of the post-Covid-19 ambience in Southeast Asia in every facet of life. In the introductory chapter, the editors rightly argue that the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic are not only felt in the sphere of public health; rather, the pandemic has shaken the entire political-social-economic life, creating multidimensional crises for the world. Each of the chapters in this book includes a regional and global context to understand the broader implications of Covid-19 in Southeast Asia.

The first segment of the book deals with the hazards of rapid urbanization and infrastructure, prevalent in most Southeast Asian cities. Such hazards include lack of proper access of water and housing for everyone. During the pandemic, the poorer classes in Southeast Asia could not isolate themselves simply because they could not afford individual housing facilities. Two other aspects of rapid urbanization are technological advancement and the rapid increase in internet usage. The Malaysian case demonstrates that while internet penetration has been on the rise in the country, its availability to its citizens is not equitable.

The Covid-19 pandemic damaged the Southeast Asian economies as well. For instance, a country like Cambodia, which mostly depends on garment/manufacturing industries and tourism, was hit hard due to the restrictions on international tourism and disruptions in supply chains. One chapter also touches upon the financial problems faced by garment workers in Cambodia, particularly the gender-based inequality which created multiple burdens on women garment workers. Malaysia has faced yet another type of problem in the aftermath of Covid-19. Beginning in the early 2010s, the Malaysian Government had introduced an international housing program (Malaysia My Second Home, or MM2H) to attract foreign investment. The program offered housing facilities to foreigners at cheaper rates compared to their homelands. However, in the face of the economic shock of Covid-19, the government has put a hold on this project, resulting in further crises that put foreign investors and real-estate developers in danger.

The second segment of the book revolves around the problems faced by migrant workers and issues of immobility during the lockdowns in Southeast Asia. The first chapter in this segment looks at the status and position of the foreign (migrant) workers stationed at dormitories in Singapore during the 2020 lockdown, highlighting their underestimated role in making Singapore a logistical hub of Asia and the world. Other chapters delve into narratives of overseas Filipino workers who had to be brought back home during the lockdown. These overseas workers not only lost their jobs and livelihoods but also faced strict quarantine rules in the Philippines upon their return, causing social tensions. The last chapter in this segment discusses the concerns of local traders and truck drivers at Muse – located on the China-Myanmar border – due to the restrictions placed on mobility during the lockdown. This was referred as a “lose-lose situation” for the Myanmar drivers, who were not able to enter China to trade their products and were also unable to sell their products in Myanmar due to tapering demand (p. 198).

In the third segment of the book, the individual chapters focused on community actions and collective responses, signaling bottom-up approach to manage some of the problems that emerged out of Covid-19 in cities and villages of Southeast Asia. Stories are narrated beautifully: an Indonesian tea-shop owner who offered free wifi to local students so that they could attend online classes, or school premises converted into quarantine centers in Myanmar’s villages to manage the spread of the virus in the absence of government initiatives and measures. This segment offers optimistic vibes amidst the disaster of the pandemic. The compassionate and participatory approaches by the communities across the region have been instrumental in stimulating the spirit of the people during the harsh days of the pandemic. One of the chapters in this segment emphasizes the rainbow community under the umbrella of civil society organizations in ASEAN and their contributions in tackling the pandemic-induced crises at the grassroots level.

From a critical perspective, this book is an amazing experience for those who wish to understand and explore the implications of Covid-19 in Southeast Asia, especially through the prisms of policymakers and communities. This work covers a wide variety of results of the lockdown and pandemic on society, the economy, people, and the state. It acknowledges that the pandemic did not only produce consequences for health infrastructure and health care systems; rather, it generated an all-encompassing disastrous atmosphere for everyone. The 26 chapters, written by more than 20 authors, have covered almost every country in Southeast Asia, giving the book a comprehensive outlook and systematic approach to analyze the societal, economic, and political narratives relating to Covid-19 in the region.