Message from Secretary General_August 2021

Posted on 10 September 2021

The Pandemic is Raging On

If 2020 was the year of COVID, then 2021 seems to be the year of the Delta variant for ASEAN countries and many countries around the globe. With the global failure to contain the virus, it has mutated to become smarter, more transmittable, harder to detect and more deadly. 

ASEAN Economies in Tatters in 2020

Q2 2020 was a hard period when Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore imposed severe lockdowns to control the pandemic. Thailand did not quite lock down, but they closed their borders and imposed curfews. Indonesia did not lock down either, but the Authorities imposed mobility restrictions in the affected areas. Vietnam controlled the pandemic well and managed to be one of the few countries in the world to achieve economic expansion in 2020. 

Governments eventually learnt the hard lesson that it is bad to shut down the economy. Businesses go bankrupt and citizens go jobless. On the other hand, it is also bad if hospitals get overwhelmed by the cases and citizens die. The balancing act is challenging with the only solution being to vaccinate the population to achieve herd immunity while the economies get kickstarted.

The Delta Variant & the 2nd Onslaught

As ASEAN countries started to ease restrictions and embarked on mass vaccination in 1st half of 2021, the Delta variant landed. It is worse; it is said to be two times more contagious than the original COVID virus. 

As such, infections in ASEAN countries have multiplied significantly (Table 1). Indonesia hit 57,000 cases/day, while cases in Malaysia and Thailand have exceeded 20,000/day recently. Cases are also rising above 8,000/day in Vietnam recently, a stark contrast to its sterling performance in the past.

With hospitals being overwhelmed, oxygen shortage and rising death tolls, many ASEAN countries are forced to re-introduce lockdowns.

Indonesia continues to focus on mobility restrictions, instead of strict lockdowns. The 5-week restrictions are being eased in parts of Java, Bali and 15 other areas. Most of the industries continue to operate. The concern is how to vaccinate its population rapidly and to adequately cover the rural area cases where healthcare facilities may be lacking. 

On 1st June 2021, Malaysia re-imposed a nationwide lockdown. Then for 2 weeks in July, the states of Selangor and Federal Territory (the economic centre of Malaysia) were in an enhanced lockdown for 2 weeks. Cases are still rising through mid-August and the Steel Industry continues to be closed.

Coming off a peak in cases in April 2021, now in August, Metro Manila is back to a hard lockdown for 2 weeks until 20 August 2021. More than 13 million people will stay home in the Philippines, due to another surge of infections, as the Delta variant lurks in the community. Only health workers, emergency and essential workers, can leave their homes.

Starting from a quasi-lockdown of Bangkok and 28 provinces in July, Thailand has extended and expanded their restrictions to cover 16 more provinces (40% of population). The Authorities fear cases could double or triple as they head into August 2021. While the Steel Industry is not locked down, limited workforce allowed and shortage of labour continues to hamper operations and output.

After implementing a series of restrictions in February and May 2021, Vietnam placed Ho Chi Minh City and the southern provinces in a hard lockdown in July. This is followed by more restrictions imposed in Hanoi and Da Nang. 33% of its population is  affected. The emergence of the Delta variant hastened the purchase of vaccines in spite of the cost and long queues, while the country continues to develop its own Nanocovax vaccine. Many industries are now affected.

Singapore is also facing an increase in Delta variant cases but the numbers have fallen below 100 cases/day, after a few weeks of tighter containment measures.

Along with all these, the ASEAN Steel Industry continues face challenges from the Delta variant. After a good run in Q1 2021 due to rising commodity prices, many steel businesses are now facing yet, another major disruption. 

But it is not just about steel. It is about getting economies back on track with infrastructure and construction projects. And with that, steel is absolutely needed. And with the continuing disruption in global supply chains, local steel 

producers are also absolutely needed.

So … What’s Next?

Vaccination is underway, with Singapore is heading towards herd immunity in 2021. Malaysia is next. The other countries, with much higher population, will take some time, subject to vaccine availability and efficiency of rollout (Table 2).

With more Variants of Concerns (VOCs) spreading, COVID is not going to go away. It is going to be part of life, like the common flu. Experts have said vaccination does not prevent COVID infection, but it will make the symptoms and illnesses less severe. So, it is essential that everyone gets vaccinated so that your loved ones are protected and so that the economy gets back on track and we can go back to our normal lives (whatever “normal” means).

Get Vaccinated, Keep Your Distance, Wear Your Masks and Stay Healthy & Safe Always!

Table 1: COVID-19 Cases in ASEAN

Table 2: Status of Mass Vaccination Progress (11 Aug 2021)

Source : SEAISI