Small-State Responses to Covid-19
This Asia Policy roundtable examines government, public health, societal, economic, and international responses to Covid-19 in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Pacific Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Pandemic Containment and Authoritarian Spread: Cambodia’s Covid-19 Responses
John D. Ciorciari
Thailand’s Covid-19 Crisis: A Tale in Two Parts
Gregory V. Raymond
Covid-19 Challenges and Responses in Bangladesh
Vietnam’s Shifting Response to the Covid-19 Challenge
The Socioeconomic Impacts of Covid-19 in Malaysia
The Covid-19 Pandemic and Health Policy Change in the Philippines
Azad Singh Bali and Björn Dressel
Covid-19 and Papua New Guinea: The Story So Far
Covid-19 Responses in Selected Polynesian Island Countries and Territories
Rochelle Bailey and Gemma Malungahu
At the beginning of 2022, as the world entered the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic, over 307 million confirmed cases and 5.5 million confirmed deaths had been recorded globally—numbers smaller than the actual figures due to limitations both on testing and on attributing causes of deaths to the virus. Even as progress is seemingly made against Covid-19’s silent threat through the rapid development and circulation of vaccines and medical treatments, preventive measures, and an increasingly better scientific understanding of the virus, each successive wave of the pandemic has brought new challenges and uncertainty to the fore of the public policy agenda in every part of the world.
The Indo-Pacific is no exception to Covid-19’s social and economic destruction, and the region has rarely left the headlines. From the virus’s initial outbreak in China, to its disruptive impacts on not only the Olympics but also political leadership in Japan, to the tragedy of the Delta variant collapsing India’s healthcare system, to supply chain disturbances throughout the Pacific, each country in the region has experienced and coped with the pandemic in its own way. As Covid-19 variants sweep around the world, healthcare diplomacy has become a global policy focus, one involving the distribution of masks, healthcare supplies, and vaccines both among developed states and between them and developing ones. The crisis has shined a light on resource inequities and competition, but at the same time it has also led to unprecedented demonstrations of generosity, scientific development, and cooperation.
The larger countries in the Indo-Pacific have received the lion’s share of resources and media attention. Less visibly, the region’s smaller and developing states have also seen their governance and public health systems unduly tested by the Covid-19 pandemic. This Asia Policy roundtable examines the government, public health, societal, economic, and international responses in some of these smaller states that are often outside the public spotlight. How have they responded to the pandemic? What prognoses do they face for overcoming the pandemic’s challenges and returning to a more normal social and economic life? Essays in this roundtable address these questions and country-specific policy issues for Bangladesh, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Pacific Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
As the essays collectively show, not all is as grim as it could be. Despite lacking the resources of larger nations, several states have so far managed relatively successfully to avoid the worst of Covid-19’s health impacts through phases of movement restriction, closures, widespread societal adherence to preventive measures, and effective vaccine campaigns. Other states found that policies that initially worked well were subsequently less effective against the spread of the more contagious Delta variant. Overall, the virus and its variants have brought into relief the economic, public health, and sociopolitical costs for these vulnerable countries. For example, the pandemic has exposed healthcare system weaknesses in the Philippines and the Pacific Islands; underscored the importance of public trust in the contrasting cases of Vietnam and Papua New Guinea; left long-term economic scars in Malaysia, Thailand, and Bangladesh; and reinforced the growing weight of authoritarianism in Cambodia.
Although the challenge of responding to Covid-19 is a global one, the experiences of the countries affected are often uniquely local. It is important to observe not only how large countries manage the pandemic but also how smaller countries do as well and to assist with their efforts through vaccine and medical supply distribution. The World Health Organization has stated that “with global vaccine production now at nearly 1.5 billion doses per month, there is enough supply to achieve our targets, provided they are distributed equitably. This is not a supply problem; it’s an allocation problem.”  It is thus paramount that smaller states be observed, considered, and treated equally alongside their larger neighbors in the campaign to end the Covid-19 pandemic.
John D. Ciorciari is an Associate Professor and Director of the International Policy Center and Weiser Diplomacy Center at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan (United States). He is the author of Sovereignty Sharing in Fragile States (2021) and co-editor with Kiyoteru Tsutsui of The Courteous Power: Japan and Southeast Asia in the Indo-Pacific Era (2021).
Gregory V. Raymond is a Lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University (Australia). Dr. Raymond is the author of Thai Military Power: A Culture of Strategic Accommodation (2018) and the lead author of The United States-Thai Alliance: History, Memory and Current Developments (2021). His research interests include Southeast Asian politics, strategy, memory, and national identity.
Tasnia Alam is a Manager for Programs and Accreditation at BRAC University (Bangladesh), where she is also convening a business ethics course. Previously, she worked in various capacities at the Australian National University, diplomatic missions (the Sri Lanka High Commission in Australia, Embassy of Japan in Bangladesh, and Embassy of China in Bangladesh), international organizations (World Bank, UNICEF, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency), and the office of an Australian member of parliament.
Paul Schuler is an Associate Professor in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona (United States). His research focuses on political behavior and institutions in single-party regimes and on Vietnam.
Calvin Cheng is a Senior Analyst in the Economics, Trade and Regional Integration division at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia (Malaysia). His primary research interests include economic growth and development, international trade, and social assistance. Some of his recent work has focused on the unequal labor market impacts of the Covid-19 crisis in Malaysia as well as on the economic responses to the pandemic.
Azad Singh Bali is a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and holds a joint appointment at the Crawford School of Public Policy and the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University (Australia). His research focuses on comparative public policy with an emphasis on health policy in Asia.
Björn Dresselis an Associate Professor and Director of Research and Impact at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University (Australia). His research is concerned with issues of comparative constitutionalism, governance, and public-sector reform in Asia.
Benjamin Dayis a Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University (Australia). His research explores the role of political leaders in foreign policy decision-making, especially in relation to international development policy. Dr. Day worked on health sector reform at the Papua New Guinea Department of Health between 2007 and 2010.
Rochelle Bailey is a Research Fellow in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University (Australia), where she works on politics, intergovernmental relationships, regionalism, economics, social change, and migration issues in the Pacific.
Gemma Malungahu is a Pacific Research Fellow in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University (Australia), where she works on health sciences, public health, and qualitative research.
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Asia Policy is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal presenting policy-relevant academic research on the Asia-Pacific that draws clear and concise conclusions useful to today’s policymakers. Asia Policy is published quarterly in January, April, July, and October and accepts submissions on a rolling basis. Learn more