International Relations Perspectives on Southeast Asia’s COVID-19 Response
The COVID-19 pandemic characterizes the 21st-century world experience through its interweaving effects in various sectors. It displays the world’s vulnerability in facing devastating challenges and scenarios ranging from economic, health, political conditions, and state capacities. Indeed, the pandemic can be seen as a “consubjectivity:” a multi-reality identification as subjectively perceived and investigated by individuals belonging to different backgrounds, such as severe demographic consequences and the economic impacts of COVID-19 in distinct societies or the psychological nocebo effect in humans from environmental stressors. Similarly, prevalent theories in International Relations contribute to the covidization by baring the dramatic changes brought by the pandemic not only to researchers, governments, economies and societies, women, labor workers, and families, thereby revealing discourses that are revisionist tales of realities.
Vaccines and policy response are central instruments to attaining security. The Philippines’ COVID-19 response projected similar patterns with ASEAN countries regarding resource reallocation and recovery strategies. According to the Philippines’ previous Health Chief Manuel Dayrit, early vaccination of the people could have mitigated the situation in Southeast Asia. It could have avoided a total record virus infection of 2.6 million in the Philippines, 822,687 in Vietnam, 1.6 million in Thailand, and 2.2 million in Malaysia, which worsened in the Delta variant surge. Whether the governments’ prevention and control efforts provide short-term or long-term solutions, these countries’ pandemic response gears policy actions towards state-centrism, institutional cooperation, and negotiated concepts of security.
Countries acknowledge an international race in the acquisition and the administration of vaccines as this is equated with security. So far, vaccine rollout in the Philippines is at 57.9 million and 70.5 million in Thailand. President Rodrigo Duterte, in his pre-recorded speech at the UNGA, alleged affluent countries of stockpiling vaccines, accounting for almost 5.86 billion administered doses as of September 2021, while developing countries such as the Philippines rely on the UN-backed COVAX program. In an effort to relax resource-intensive interventions and the desired herd immunity of 70-80 percent, the government conducted multilateral partnerships and negotiations with organizations such as the Asian Development Bank—a move that proved beneficial for 20 million Filipinos awaiting COVID-19 immunization because such actions contributed to the successful signing of a 40 million supply deal with Pfizer-BioNTech. Interestingly, this points to a Liberal perspective that recognizes vaccines as a potential cause of conflict while making it a connection point for institutional cooperation to achieve mutual gains. It is deemed necessary for states like the Philippines with intertwined interests to cooperate; otherwise, they expect grave conflict outcomes, such as added mortality rates and worsened financial markets. Thailand is not much different from the Philippines. Before the onslaught of the Delta variant, policymakers praise Thailand’s AstraZeneca deal for securing one of the earlier drug-production bases in Asia. However, the Prayut government faced pressures for its insufficient vaccine procurement despite seeing it fit to buy over 100 million directly from the manufacturers than rely on international alms like the U.N backed program. Although they were confident in their middle-income country status, achieving 70 percent herd immunity is impossible without far-reaching collaborations with organizations and health institutions. By mid-year, the Thai government caved in and decided to join COVAX to hasten its immunization goals. States like Thailand previously relied entirely on self-capabilities for the domestic procurement of vaccines, later on realizing that institutional intervention in the form of transnational organizations and various pharmaceutical companies present a suitable method to solve COVID-19 insecurities and increase the country’s inoculation rate.
There were modifications in the pandemic policy response on vaccines by states interacting with multinational non-state actors and exposure to international media. Expert epistemic communities mutually agreed that no vaccine is 100% effective, but at least 50% efficacy rate and a mandatory two shots for immunization is acceptable. Based on the list of qualified brands—AstraZeneca, Pfizer, etc.—health departments and governments negotiate with pharmaceutical companies and research scientists on which mRNA vaccines to procure. Factors like the emergence of multiple virus variants, unavailable vaccines, and immunocompromised individuals changed the norm for the accepted vaccine protection.
In the Philippines, Filipinos inquire of their eligibility in getting booster shots given the rampant increase in reported cases in the 2nd half of the year. The changes in perception among the general population prompted shifts in action plans. The local government is allocating US$899 million under its 2022 budget, even though certain health officials debate the need for a 3rd dose. In Thailand, Health Minister Anutin Charnvikarul confirmed the existence of a leaked document that dissuaded the authorities from administering jabs of Pfziner-BioNTech to essential workers because of Sinovac’s inefficacy. The public outrage in social media prompted the government also to give mRNA booster shoots to medical workers who completed the prescribed two shots. On an International Relations perspective, such a move can be explained under the guidance of Constructivism, dealing with the conceptual structure of vaccine security. Under such view, the Philippines can be analyzed as a pandemic actor whose negotiated concepts of health security is grounded on its population’s collective meaning of an effective vaccine. The Philippines’ identifications for credible shots derive from a process where they interact with others for knowledge building. Having a shared notion of vaccine norms, practices are negotiated with political agents and societies involved adapting through formal institutions Interests and identity are changing over time and space due to its mutually constituted structure.
Nevertheless, Maria Van Kerkhove of the WHO said vaccines alone are not enough to completely fix the health crisis. Combining it with other existing public health measures gives them reasonable control. Part of the policy response of the Philippines is to issue unilateral restraints through travel bans and community quarantine as an emergency response to protect its citizens from the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 2020, the entire country has been switching protocols for restriction between Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) and Modified Community Quarantine, determining when travels are only permitted under medical and humanitarian reasons. Public transportations operate with passenger capacity at a maximum of 50 percent. State employees are in skeletal force. The government also prohibited certain establishments, such as leisure, and places that practice close contacts from operating. Such defensive motives can be examined under Realism as countries exact specific control over domestic movements to evoke security advantages. Even despotic leaderships, like Myanmar and Thailand, tackle pandemic insecurity through far-reaching controls while exacting resource mobilization in a top-down approach. These countries are also placed in a state of emergency, where stay-home rules, limited engagements, international travel ban, and proper hygiene also apply to all citizens. The Realist claim is reflected on states that utilized militarization of social relationships and issues to address the sentiments of fear and threats of the COVID-19 virus. In solving these imminent threats, their policy actions and forms of state monopoly tend to downplay other social and cultural stressors of the pandemic. The nationwide lockdown as a measure of control would aggravate conditions of malnutrition, poverty, in-house crimes like Gender Based Violence, and income inequality. Although ASEAN countries like the Philippines attempted to solve mass unemployment and economic downgrade through stimulus checks, it will overburden their fiscal position and affect GDP growth prospects.
International relations theories and perspectives provide lenses to better analyze the development of state policy pertaining to security under the COVID-19 pandemic. Realism emphasizes the central act of states in global affairs as they dictate the course of policy response and measures for vaccine security. Liberalism, on the same side of the coin, practices a nation-state approach but with components of hopeful regimes for a situational positive-sum outcome. Lastly, Constructivism soothes the gap of former theories by dissecting the intangible concepts of COVID-19 identities concerning vaccine and policy response.
Alexia Anne M. Suñaz is an academic lecturer in Pampanga who obtained her bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies in 2018 from the University of Santo Tomas. Currently, she is pursuing her graduate studies in International Studies specializing in Asian Studies at the De La Salle University. Her deep interest in global cultural exchanges, particularly Japan, has led her to choose her courses.