Southeast Asia must prepare for the worst in 2021

Southeast Asia must prepare for the worst in 2021

Region will do well if things do not go backward

The optimist, someone once said, proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist fears this is true.

Anyone who hopes that 2021 will be an improvement will be disappointed. The trajectory of developments within Southeast Asia and in the region’s relations with the U.S. and China will not shift substantively, at least not for the better. We will do well if things do not get worse.

Southeast Asia has managed the pandemic better than other regions, except Northeast Asia. But better is not well, and the virus has exposed serious failures of governance in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Viable vaccines will be rolled out during the year. But a vaccine is not a panacea for bad governance. These countries will still struggle to avoid being overwhelmed.

Nor can the danger of a second wave of infections in those Association of Southeast Asian Nation members that have managed the pandemic relatively well be discounted. As the pandemic drags on and fatigue sets in, new waves of infections are likely. Avoiding complacency and maintaining social discipline will be serious challenges, particularly because we cannot forever remain closed to each other and the world. The economic costs are mounting and the final bill is far from being tallied.