While reins loosening amid economic pressures, it won’t be business as usual

Customers play with cats to find comfort at the Caturday Cat cafe after the government started opening some restaurants outside shopping malls, parks and barbershops, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Bangkok, Thailand May 7, 2020.

When Thailand started easing lockdown measures in the first week of May, university lecturer Eunice Barbara Novio immediately went to a nearby mall to shop.

The longtime resident of the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima has been teaching students online for the past month, as Thailand had to shutter schools and public facilities to arrest a rise in COVID-19 infections.

But it was not shopping as usual for Novio. Like most residents of Thailand, she did not leave home without her face mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer. Restaurants and other shops may have reopened, but Novio had to stand at least one meter away from the next customer. A store employee had to take her temperature before she could enter any establishment.

“We are still cautious,” said Novio, adding that since measures were eased she “can feel that the city is slowly coming back to life. Malls and other businesses are expected to reopen before the month ends”.

Governments in Southeast Asia have been working to reduce the number of infections, imposing partial lockdowns since March. This policy was meant to stem the rise in the number of COVID-19 patients that has been straining the public health system. But this response to a public health emergency came at a huge cost: job losses, shuttered small businesses, increased poverty and sluggish economic growth.

Against this backdrop, several countries are gradually relaxing movement and gathering restrictions in the next few weeks, allowing most businesses and public transport to resume their operations. But this comes with a caveat-people have to maintain strict social distancing and personal hygiene practices.

Malaysia on May 10 eased its partial shutdown by allowing some businesses to reopen and gatherings of up to 20 people for festive celebrations, but the conditional lockdown is in general extended to June 9.

Thira Woratanarat, associate professor in the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, said there are several conditions that have to be met before any country can relax its movement restriction measures.

“The government should consider easing the (lockdown) measures when the country has a very low number of infected cases,” Thira said.

He said that businesses and the people themselves should also be ready to embrace the “new normal” after the lockdown has been lifted. Thira said people should learn to stay home as much as possible and to always wear masks when going outside.

Corporate changes

Primary school students wearing protective masks line up before entering their school for their first day of class after the government eased a nationwide lockdown during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, May 11, 2020.

Thira said companies need to provide face masks and hand sanitizers to their employees, regularly sanitize their facilities and encourage more employees to work from home.

Sivananthi Thanenthiran, executive director of the Kuala Lumpur-based Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women, said that while the lockdown is necessary in light of a public health emergency, it was also “devastating” for the poor.

“Women who were dependent on daily wages often lost their source of income and their families went hungry,” Thanenthiran said. She said non-government organizations and charity groups have been helping these poor families.

Sian Fenner, lead Asia economist for Oxford Economics in Singapore, said: “For many Asian economies, the pace of contraction in economic growth this year is likely to be deeper than the global financial crisis and, for some, the Asia financial crisis.”

Fenner said the easing of lockdown measures will help governments to reignite national economies. But she believes that they will remain cautious, especially at a time when there is still no vaccine against the virus that causes COVID-19.

“Given the risk of a second wave (of infections), I would expect governments to continue to monitor the situation and maintain a cautious approach to easing restrictions,” she said.

Fenerr said that a second wave of infections could severely dampen consumer confidence and economic activity.

Fenner expects Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines “to slip into recession” for much of this year, reflecting the simultaneous shocks from lockdowns and containment measures imposed domestically and globally that are hitting both domestic and external demand.

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