More contact with the Chinese people should have led to higher transmission in these countries. Yet this didn't happen in Laos, Myanmar, or Cambodia
The Buddhist majority countries in South-East Asia, namely Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, saw rather small-scale outbreaks during this coronavirus pandemic.
Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar share borders with the origin of the deadly virus, China. And with India reporting high number of cases every day, how have these neighbouring countries managed to contain the spread of the coronavirus? A recent article in the Economist explored the phenomenon.
The wonder case in this region has to be Vietnam. A country with a population of 97 million people, the authorities claim no deaths from Covid-19. Thailand, with 70 million people, has seen just 58 deaths and no cases of local transmission has been reported in over 40 days. Myanmar claims just six fatalities from 317 cases. Cambodia reported 141 cases and the tiny country Laos only saw 19 cases. Both these countries claimed no deaths and no local transmission since April.
Geographically speaking, they have it far better than their other neighbours such as Indonesia with some 68,100 cases and 3,400 deaths, and the Philippines with 50,400 cases and 1,300 deaths. It is almost as if the pandemic has spared these Buddhist majority nations!
But does it have anything to do with religion though? It would not seem so, because, Vietnam's communist dictatorship is atheist. Meanwhile, China, the original epicentre of the virus, also has a majority Buddhist population although it is also a communist state.
Vietnam's handling of the crisis so far deserves to be commended. Centuries of mistrust in its great northern neighbour, China, prepared Vietnam to be extra cautious of all the information China gave about the virus at the beginning of this year. Vietnam even initiated cyber-attacks to get more knowledge about the path of the outbreak. The country closed its borders and used repressive forces to keep the population locked. They monitored and separated any affected patients. That is kind of similar to what China's communist regime was doing.
In terms of having a powerful government who can make the people follow protocols, as well as having a strong medical sector, Thailand also makes the list. The country led by generals in the name of democracy has an incredible healthcare system which makes Thailand a popular medical tourist destination. In addition, the government was swift to create a robust task force for fighting Covid-19.
Initially, more contact with the Chinese people must have been a prerequisite for transmission. Yet this didn't happen in Laos, which is too low to withstand the flattery of China, Myanmar, which is awash with Chinese traders and traffickers, or Cambodia, whose strongman, Hun Sen, is China's greatest supporter in the region. Such countries are being reshaped by Chinese development, and all came under pressure not to close borders with China as the pandemic spread.
In February, at the height of the Chinese outbreak, Hun Sen travelled to Beijing. Thailand is also quite closely knit to China, it seems, as the country welcomed Chinese tourists even in March. And Myanmar's China border seriously lacks guard. Then, why did all these visitors from China not cause a bigger outbreak in South-East Asia?
Many suspect that they have done so, but these have not been revealed. Tests in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are extremely restricted. But, Frank Smithuis of Medical Action Myanmar, a charity with many clinics around the country, says that his organisation would have found out if there had been a large-scale transmission. A covid-19 epidemic cannot be covered, he told the Economist, especially in Myanmar, the "gossip country number one" in the world. Also, researchers in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam do not see signs of large transmission, like people rushing to the hospitals with symptoms.
Even the poorest countries have taken steps which may have helped to control coronavirus spread. Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok said that migrant workers coming back from Thailand to their Myanmar villages had to quarantine in a shack outside their village for 14 days.
According to health experts, many factors may have come in helpful, like large numbers of people living in the countryside rather than cities; people who are more likely to stay at houses with fans and open windows than air conditioning; the region's relative youth; and a pre-existing tendency to wear masks in public.
Also, there may be a religious element to it too. The Buddhist way of greeting is called the wai, where they press their palms together. Unlike the handshake or hugs or cheek kisses in other parts of the world, the wai is a way of physical distancing.
The question now is whether the Buddhist achievements in South-East Asia will survive second or third waves. Thitinan says, perhaps low transmission from China wasn't quite the miraculous blessing. After all, the giant neighbour soon got on top of its outbreak. Now, China is not the only problem anymore, the whole world is.
The outbreak has changed its course and is still changing. Infections from across the world are being introduced across Asia, seeding local transmission, most recently in Hong Kong.