COVID-19 challenges in Southeast Asia: Proliferation of mutant strains, tighter restrictions amid pandemic fatigue and vaccination fears

Forty-nine per cent of cases involving the B.1.1.7 variant are in Southeast Asia, the WHO reported

JAKARTA, INDONESIA — New COVID-19 variants have spread across numerous countries in Southeast Asia, sending a warning sign that the pandemic is not over yet, despite growing pandemic fatigue among people worldwide with social distancing regulations and travel restrictions designed to minimise the spread of the deadly virus.

Indonesia’s Ministry of Health recently confirmed that three virus variants have entered the country: B.1.1.7 (the United Kingdom variant), B.1.6.1.7 (Indian variant), B.1.3.5.1 (South Africa variant), and B.1.5.2.5 variant.

As of 18 May, Indonesia identified 26 cases related to new coronavirus variants, the ministry stated in its Youtube Channel.

The U.K. variant has a transmission rate between 36 and 75 per cent compared to that of the previous types of virus, said Director-General of Disease Prevention and Control at Health Ministry, Siti Nadia Tarmizi.

So far, Indonesia has identified seven coronavirus variants: D614G, B117, N439K, E484K, B1525, B1617, and B1351.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 49 per cent of B 1.1.7 variants have been circulating in Southeast Asia, which triggered a further spike in the number of new daily cases in the region.

Sore throat from B.1.1.7 variant infection virtually indistinguishable from regular sore throat, among other symptoms

The Office for National Statistics reported that people exposed to B.1.1.7 variant cough more often than those exposed to the old virus strain.

Additionally, people infected with B.1.1.7 have more frequent instances of fever than those exposed to the previous type of virus.

Sore throat is the most common symptom. Therefore, it is tricky to determine whether you have a common sore throat or a sore throat related to the coronavirus.

Other symptoms are extreme fatigue, loss of appetite, headache, and skin rash. Still, more research is necessary to identify new symptoms caused by the B.1.1.7 variant.

How new coronavirus variants are infecting Southeast Asia

The new coronavirus variants have triggered the rise in the number of COVID-19 infections in Southeast Asia, on top of the already high daily toll in certain countries in the region.

Indian variants as well as South Africa and the UK variants have reached Malaysia, Health Minister Adham Baba confirmed on 2 May.

In early Jan, Vietnamearlier hailed as one of the countries that have tackled the pandemic effectively reported its first case of the new coronavirus variant from the U.K.

Meanwhile, Director of Medical Services at Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH), Kenneth Mak announced on 4 May that seven cases in three local clusters were related to the Indian variant or B.1.6.1.7.2.

Thailand’s Ministry of Health reported a new daily high of nearly 10,000 coronavirus cases on 17 May more than two-thirds of them in prisons, as the kingdom battles its third wave of the pandemic.

The Philippines reported its first case from the U.K. strain in Jan. On 5 March, the country’s official data showed that the new cases of South Africa variant reached 52 in three days.

Tightening of social restrictions in the face of new variants despite public grappling with pandemic fatigue

Southeast Asian nations have imposed social restrictions aimed at containing the further spread of the disease.

Stifled by having to stay at home for too long, people have been going out in droves the moment movement restrictions are relaxed.

Malaysia’s Director-General of Health, Noor Hisham Abdullah observed that the drastic spike in the numbers of COVID-19 cases is connected to pandemic fatigue.

A nationwide movement control order (MCO) has been imposed in the country amid the continuous surge in the numbers of COVID-19 cases, including those involving the new variants. The MCO saw a prohibition on all gatherings and family visits over the Eid holiday.

More recently, new restrictions on dining in at eateries — among other COVID-19 regulations — took effect on Sunday in Singapore, giving rise to impressions that the current measures — which will remain in place until 13 Jun — are a form of “mini-CB and CB-lite”.

38 new community cases were reported in the city-state on Sunday, marking its highest daily number of infections reported since 14 Apr last year. 17 of the cases are unlinked.

Singapore’s Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said at a press conference on Sunday that the Government will “need to monitor the situation and then come to a decision later” before possibly reintroducing the circuit breaker.

Earlier in Indonesia, massive crowds recently seen at Jakarta’s Tanah Abang Market leading up to Eid demonstrate how people have longed to go out for daily activities outside, despite the lack of enforcement of health protocols and the inherent risks that it carries.

A Jakarta-based housewife told TOC that it is hard to remind young people such as her 22-year-old son to apply health protocols.

“I always remind him about wearing masks and washing hands every time he goes out. But yes, younger people tend to ignore health protocols sometimes,” said Aya.

On vaccination: Setbacks and progress

As of 16 May, as many as 13,737,596 people in Indonesia have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, official data showed.

The government aims to have 181,554,465 people across the archipelagic nation vaccinated against COVID-19 in an effort to form herd immunity.

Amid the process of the Indonesian elderly receiving their jabs now, several obstacles have arisen such as their underlying illnesses and their concerns over the vaccines’ side effects.

“My dad does not want to get vaccinated due to information on the vaccine’s side effects,” Ali, a Jakarta resident told TOC.

Separately, a 22-year-old college student opined that news on the side effects after the vaccination has discouraged many people from being vaccinated.

“Such information can make people feel afraid of vaccines. But if people get sick or die after the vaccination, it might be because they have other diseases. Maybe they did not tell the truth about their health condition,” he told TOC.

In Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding state of Selangor, the opt-in AstraZeneca vaccination program kicked off successfully on 5 May despite anxieties amongst the public regarding the vaccine’s risks — the most feared being rare instances of blood clots, particularly for women under 60.

All 268,000 slots were fully booked in just around three hours the day prior via the Special Committee on COVID-19 Vaccine Supply Access Guarantee‘s registration page.

Beyond KL and Selangor, the voluntary program for the AstraZeneca vaccine will be extended to the rest of the country as the government is anticipating the arrival of at least 1.1 million additional doses this month from the COVAX Facility, said the coordinating minister of the National COVID-19 Immunisation Programme, Khairy Jamaluddin.

In a tweet on Monday (17 May), Khairy said that the next AstraZeneca opt-in program will open on 23 May.

However, it will only be available to seniors above 60 in Selangor, KL, Penang, Sarawak and Johor in the second round — states where cases are highest, he said. The AstraZeneca vaccine will also be sent to elderly care homes, said Khairy.

To date, 475,984 people have been vaccinated in Phase Two of the National Immunisation Programme (NIP) with at least a single dose of Pfizer-BioNTech or Sinovac. AstraZeneca was earlier dropped from the NIP due to growing hesitancy over the vaccine after rare cases of blood clots were reported in several European countries.

In Singapore, where the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are administered, about 1.8 million individuals had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of 9 May.

Of this number, about 1.2 million people have received their second dose and completed their full vaccination program, said then-Health Minister Gan Kim Yong in Parliament on 11 May.

Around two-thirds of eligible people aged 45 and above have received the COVID-19 vaccination or booked their vaccination appointments, he added.

While vaccination does not eliminate the risk of infection, it provides “significant protection against infections and help reduce the severity of the disease”.

Citing a study published in The Lancet, Mr Gan noted that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can reduce risks of asymptomatic infection by 91 per cent.

The mild symptoms among fully vaccinated individuals who were tested positive with COVID-19, said the Minister, “is consistent with the international experience and emerging evidence” on how vaccines are “highly efficacious” in protecting individuals against severe COVID-19-related complications.

While the vaccine take-up rate in Singapore has been “encouraging”, Mr Gan stressed the importance of encouraging seniors to be vaccinated, “given their age”.

“They are the most vulnerable … (Thus) I urge all of us to encourage our elderly family members too,” he said.

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