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People protest in Thailand, Malaysia as Covid-19 spreads across South East Asia

The Covid-19 pandemic is raging in South East Asia (Photo: IANS)

The raging coronavirus pandemic is causing political turmoil in South-East Asian nations as people protest against their governments over their failure to handle Covid-19. In both Thailand and Malaysia, people have been protesting against what they see poor management of the infection.

On Wednesday, the head of Thailand’s National Vaccine Institute (NVI) apologised to people for the country's inadequate rollout of coronavirus vaccines. In another significant decision, Thailand now plans to join the UN-backed Covax programme to get vaccine supplies from the international facility.

Thailand was the only country in the region to not join the Covax coalition by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the World Health Organization, launched to ensure vaccines for countries with poor access.

NVI director Nakorn Premsri said at a press conference: "I apologise to the people that the National Vaccine Institute has not managed to procure a sufficient amount of vaccines appropriate for the situation, although we have tried our best. The mutations were something that could not be predicted, which have caused a more rapid spread than last year. The vaccine procurement effort did not match the current situation”.

On July 21, the number of new infections touched 13,002 with a weekly average of 10,921—setting new records with each passing day and fuelling anger among the people, who have been protesting in capital Bangkok. The protestors defied lockdown orders to burn effigies of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha for mishandling the health situation. The police fired rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse the protestors. 

The government had said in February that Thailand would not get free or cheap vaccines from Covax as it is a middle-income country. It also said that it would have to pay high prices in advance without knowing which vaccines it would get. Now, these calculations by the government have fallen flat with a shortage of vaccines and a surge in infections.

Also, Thailand was forced to procure China-made vaccines at high prices and that too at a time when questions were raised over the efficacy of these.

If Thailand is facing problems, neighbour Malaysia's coronavirus pandemic issues have morphed into political problems and an emergency.

Earlier this month people organised black flag protests, locally called called #BenderaHitam, against the government's failure in controlling the surge in infections. The opposition parties too joined the protests against Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who in turn, asked the king to impose emergency to deal better with the pandemic.

However, the infections continue unabated despite the emergency.

On Wednesday the country reported 199 deaths on a single day—the highest death toll since the start of the pandemic in late 2019. The government has asked all hospitals to move out the non-Covid-19 patients to make more space for those with the infection.

With no let-up in the covid-19 numbers, a youth group-the Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR) is holding protests against the government. Just four days back SSR organised a flash mob at the capital's Independence Square with black flags and effigies of dead bodies. Once again, it has given a call for a street protest on July 31, asking for Yassin to resign, convening a parliamentary session and automatic bank loan moratoriums for people affected due to the nationwide lockdown.

Meanwhile, Indonesia with 27 crore people is confronting a situation worse than what India suffered during its devastating second wave. On Wednesday it reported, 33,772 cases with a weekly average of 44,826 cases. The total number of fatalities has touched 77,583 in the archipelago.

The country's covid-19 troubles began immediately after the Eid holidays in May when the coronavirus numbers began surging.

India is sending oxygen supplies to Indonesia. External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar tweeted: "Update: There has been a delay in arrival of INS Airawat reaching Tanjung Priok, Indonesia, carrying 300 oxygen concentrators & 100 MT of Liquid Medical Oxygen from India. Will keep you posted for further developments. India stands with its partners in the fight against Covid".

Amidst the pandemic surge in South-East Asia, Dr Yasir Arafat, advisor to Save the Children for Covid-19 response in Asia, says that the worst is yet to come in the region. Speaking with Relief Web, he said: "“Epidemiological models predict that Southeast Asia could have as many as 2.3 million infections and 4,500 deaths each day, with more than half of all infections and deaths happening in Indonesia. The situation looks likely to deteriorate further in places like Thailand and the Philippines, as models predict that, at their peak, these countries could see as many as 75,000 daily new cases between them in late July to early August".