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Southeast Asian states by and large managed to keep the spread of the COVID-19 virus to a minimum in 2020.

Nations such as Vietnam and Thailand recorded few domestic infections, and some were quick to hold up these examples as models for the world to emulate. In 2021, however, the region began to struggle to keep the pandemic at bay, with high rates of domestic transmission and rising death tolls.

Initially, few countries in the region were able to ramp up vaccinations, which are believed to be key in reducing caseloads and deaths. This was in part due to a lack of supply, as rich countries secured the initial doses of anti-COVID-19 vaccines. It was also to some extent due to various nations’ missteps in getting their hands on vaccines as well as the fact that citizens in some states and territories, having feared little threat from the virus, did not see any urgency in getting vaccinated.

Hong Kong, for instance, despite its relative wealth and access to such drugs, has a comparatively low vaccination rate. That is probably in part because the territory has had so few infections due to the government’s zero-COVID strategy and stringent border controls — and, as result, people do not feel so threatened by the pandemic.

At the time of writing, only three states in Southeast Asia have fully vaccinated more than 70% of their population. One such nation is Singapore, which has a relatively small population and a world-class public health system. (In wealthier Northeast Asia, nations such as Japan and South Korea are ramping up vaccination rates and surpassing European and North American countries in the number of doses they have administered per capita.) Some of the poorer states in Southeast Asia, like junta-run Myanmar, have very high COVID-19 infection rates and limited vaccination capacity.

Sitting alongside Singapore, Malaysia has also become something of a vaccine success story, although it is a middle-income country with nowhere near the public health infrastructure as Singapore, South Korea or Japan. At the time of writing, Malaysia had fully vaccinated more than 77% of its population, with some 90% of adults — those deemed eligible for the vaccine — receiving a second dose. By contrast, neighboring Thailand had fully vaccinated just 44% of its population, while the Philippines had only reached 25%. By achieving such a high vaccination rate, the number of infections per capita in Malaysia, which earlier had been among the worst in the world, have fallen sharply in recent months.

The vaccine success has allowed Malaysia to move forward with booster shots for those who are eligible as well as inoculating younger children. It has also allowed the government to reopen many indoor entertainment venues and allow travel between states within Malaysia, among other things.

Interestingly, Cambodia has also achieved a high vaccination rate after obtaining vaccines from China as well as aggressively securing vaccines from COVAX, a global initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. Malaysia has deployed several Chinese-made vaccines but has relied primarily on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is generally believed to be more effective.

Malaysia took several key steps that helped make it a vaccine success story. First, it pursued vaccines aggressively, becoming the first Southeast Asian state to place an order with Pfizer in 2020 — before there was real certainty about the efficacy of its shots. It also relied on a wide range of vaccine sources, unlike other Southeast Asian nations, in case the Pfizer vaccine did not prove effective enough.

“Most of our portfolio is Pfizer and then we spread our bets,” vaccine coordinator Khairy Jamaluddin told Australian reporters. “We decided early on that it would be dangerous to put our eggs in one or two baskets.”

By this past summer, Malaysia had secured a significant stockpile of vaccines. Still, the authorities continued aggressively pushing producers to ensure they got their doses on time — sometimes even ahead of schedule. It also did not try to make a domestic version of the vaccine initially, although a Malaysian version may now be ready in two or three years. In contrast, Thailand attempted to produce its own domestic version of the vaccine and ended up botching its effort.

Unlike other countries in the region, Malaysia set up the same sort of mass vaccination sites that had worked well in early stages of the vaccine rollout in the United States and elsewhere. The mass vaccination venue at World Trade Center Kuala Lumpur delivered roughly 1.2 million doses in a country of around 32 million people.

Malaysia’s government also named Jamaluddin as coordinating minister of the national vaccination program in February. As a result, responsibilities for various aspects of the vaccine rollout were not spread over multiple agencies, including the Health Ministry, which was criticized for being slow off the mark in the early stages of the outbreak. By adopting a coordinated approach, political and public health leaders have come together to deliver a unified message on COVID-19 to the population, something that has been lacking in many wealthy democracies in Europe and North America.

The Southeast Asian nation has also not faced the kind of misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines that has been prevalent in places such as the United States and Brazil, as well as in neighboring states like the Philippines or Indonesia.

As other nations in the region ramp up their vaccination campaigns, they can take heart from the fact that Malaysia has managed to achieve a significant vaccination triumph.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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