South and Southeast Asian farmers and COVID’s impact

COVID-19 has affected many different work demographics in unprecedented ways, and farmers are no exception. As the virus continues to threaten lives and livelihoods of millions around the world, in South and Southeast Asia, added concerns about the long-term health of the sub-regions’ food systems are being raised. (See also last week’s post about the impact on seafood supply chains.)
Some farmers in Central Luzon, located in the Philippines, claim that the fertilizers that they’ve received from the Department of Agriculture (DA) as a part of COVID-19 aid are overpriced. Two farmers, William Laureta and Ernesto Agustin Domino, on June 10th, said that the DA stimulus program bought roughing 1.8 million bags of urea fertilizer for a total of P1.8 billion (2.22B USD)- around P1,000 (1,200 USD) per bag – however, the average retail price of the fertilizer was only P850 (1,000 USD) per bag, creating an overprice of P271.6 million (335.4M USD).
Laureta stated [in translation] “farmers could barely survive this crisis, and even the government is vitally scraping the bottom of the barrel now just to look for funds to help the most vulnerable sectors, including farms, and to keep the economy afloat.” Domingo added “these agriculture officials should be taken to task for knowingly entering into an anomalous and overpriced contract. They have betrayed us farmers who need all the help we can get and have defrauded the government of millions of pesos of crucial funds.” Both agree that the savings the DA could have garnered could be used to add to the government’s COVID-19 response, as President Rodrigo Duterte said that the country was running out of funds.
Malaysia is the world’s second-largest palm oil producer, and relies on foreigners, drawn mainly from the neighboring Indonesia and South Asian countries, for roughly 70% of its plantation workforce. Recruitment has been stalled as a result of the stay-at-home orders, and this has caused the country’s plantation industry to be short 500,000 workers, according to the Malaysian government. “We have not received new workers in the last three months,” said Nageeb Wahab, chief executive of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA), “many workers have repatriated and absconded during the lockdown. A lot of estates will be short of workers.”
Plantation and Commodities Minister Mohd Khairuddin Atman Razali has urged the companies to hire more local workers. “If we talk about the introduction of new foreign workers in the sector, it will not happen in the near future because we have restricted their entry until further notice. The current batch of foreign workers are those who have a work permit[…] when their permit ends, they will be sent back to their respective countries. This is an opportunity for us to replace them with locals.”
India is home to 120 million smallholder farmers who contribute over 40% of the country’s grain production, and over 50% of its fruits, vegetables, oilseeds and other crops. While each year, India’s farmers face challenges like low rainfall, price volatility, and debt, the pandemic is adding new risks and challenges, as the nationwide lockdown came during the harvest season. This has created shortages of both labor and equipment, as migrant workers are unable to move to rural areas as they usually would, and the harvesting equipment that smallholder farmers need is unavailable for renting.
Farmers have been unable to harvest their bumper crops (cereal and oilseed) this season, while in some places the crops have been delayed or completely abandoned. Though India’s feedback had the minimum operational buffer in stock three times over, supply and access is the critical issue. Long supply chains are heavily affected as transport is restricted and some drivers abandoned trucks full of produce in the middle of interstate highways. Markets ran short on supplies as a result.
Read more on WBCSD’s article on the “Impact of COVID-19 on smallholder farmers” found here:
Author: Camryn Thomas

Philippines Financial Aid relief

The Philippines has received around $130.4 million of financial aid so far for the government’s COVID-19 response. The largest donation came from the Project Ugnayan of the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation at $29.1 million, followed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) at $19.2 million, San Miguel Corporation at $15.22 million, and Unilab at $12.08 million. The World Health Organization reports that the Filipino government was able to obtain a $1.1 billion loan from the World Bank and $1.5 billion from the Asian Development Bank (ADB, coincidentally based in the Philippines) for COVID relief.

However, government critics are asking where the funds are going, as the government hasn’t yet implemented massive COVID-19 testing programs, while several social aid beneficiaries have yet to receive the second wave of grants. As regulations are easing, Filipino families are still facing problems such as a lack of public transportation, unfinished social aid provision, closure of businesses due to distancing regulations, and distance learning difficulties due to the inability of poor families to secure technology and stable internet connection.

As of June 9th, the Department of Health (DOH) has counted 23,732 COVID cases nationwide; 1,071 who have passed away, and 4,736 who have recovered.

The Makati Office of the City Prosecutor and Makati courts are taking precautions – including suspension of face-to-face inquest proceedings, contact tracing, and disinfection – after a prosecutor was exposed to a family member positive for COVID-19. A total of 59 employees of the Department of Justice have tested positive out of the 488 that have been tested.  Senior Assistant Site Prosecutor Roberto Lao advised all prosecutors and staff to work from home – except those on trial duty. Lao said that inquest proceedings for those arrested without a warrant would be moved online, while oath duty, clearance applications, plead filings and motions, and regular filings are suspended until further notice.


Author: Camryn Thomas

COVID-19 and Pop Culture in Southeast Asia

Karl Ian Uy Cheng Chua, an Assistant Professor at the History Department and Director of the Japanese Studies Program at Ateneo de Manila University, wrote a piece “Covid-19 and Popular Culture in Southeast Asia” on how digital media responded to the pandemic and how it provides accurate and updated information that helps keep citizens safe:

While these roles were dominated primarily by television, radio and print, in recent years, digital media has been leading the information spaces, particularly in urban areas. An OECD study in 2017 showed that more than a quarter of the nation’s population have internet access: Brunei Darussalam (95%); Singapore (85%); Malaysia (80%); Philippines (60%); Thailand (53%); Vietnam (50%); Cambodia (34%); Indonesia (32%); Myanmar (31%); Laos (26%). (The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2019) A further peculiarity is how popular culture has been used by organizations and individuals to attain their information dissemination goals. This has been accentuated during the COVID-19 pandemic, as quarantines of various forms were implemented by governments which encouraged citizens to stay at home, and limited their mobilities, created populations hungry for information on the virus. Popular culture is playing an integral role as the media not only provides information, as well as entertainment, it also creates a space for dialogue.

Find the full article – along with many more related to Pan-Asian responses to COVID – on Corona Chronicles: Voices from the Field.

Author: Camryn Thomas

South Korea’s response to COVID-19, with Prof. Ji-Yeon Jo

The Carolina Asia Center’s director, Prof. Ji-Yeon Jo, was interviewed by the department chair of Asia and Middle East Studies, Prof. Morgan Pitelka (also a former CAC director) about the way that South Korea has managed its response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. This video interview comes from the DAMES series “Forty for Forty.”

Industrial seafood systems in the immobilizing COVID‑19 moment with Prof. Elizabeth Havice

Elizabeth Havice, an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at UNC-Chapel Hill, has a new “Rapid Response” piece out in the academic journal Agriculture and Human Values about “Industrial Seafood Systems in the Immobilizing COVID-19 Moment.” Along with colleagues from University of Ottowa and York University (Canada), she writes about the dilemmas that an inherently international business supply chain (industrial fishing and seafood processes in Southeast Asia) faces when cross-border mobility is so constrained:

Immobilization is a key tool for containing COVID-19. Yet, mobility is a hallmark of industrial seafood systems that are an important source of food security and employment around the world. For example, tuna might be caught through the labor of Indonesian workers on Taiwanese flagged vessels that fish throughout Solomon Islands’ and Papua New Guinea’s waters; and it might be processed and canned by Myanmar workers in processing plants in Thailand, before being sold in major supermarkets globally. So what then comes of industrial seafood systems, including the workers in them, when managing the spread COVID-19 focuses on restricting mobilities? …

Industrial seafood systems are organized around continuous flow of product through global value chains (Campling and Havice 2018). COVID-19 has accelerated some flows and introduced chokepoints for others.

Find the full article – along with many other open-access pieces on food systems and COVID-19 – on the website of Agriculture and Human Values here. Read more about Prof. Havice’s work here.

Japan’s Preparation for Second Wave

Public officials and private companies across Japan are working on ways to prepare for a second wave of coronavirus infections. Currently, there have been over 17,000 people who have tested positive, and over 900 people have died in the country.

This preparation includes the addition of another 18 countries to Japan’s entry ban list, expanding the list from 111 to 129. While Japan adds countries such as Cuba and Lebanon, they consider easing the entry ban for Thailand, Australia, and another two nations.

The country tries to boost testing numbers as companies work together to speed up the manufacturing process for test kits. Fujirebio, along with two major electronics firms, will help expand capacity to create its nation tests. These kits can identify an infection much faster than PCR tests, with results in around 30 minutes. Toshiba will provide assistance and space to make the kits, while Hitachi will help make the process more efficient.

Japanese lawmakers will soon begin debating a new supplementary budget this week to support the government’s fight against coronavirus of which will include a reserve fund worth $91.5 billion. Half of this proposed money would go toward protecting jobs, supporting people in need, and helping local governments boost their medical systems, but there is opposition as some lawmakers feel that the government shouldn’t be given such a large “blank check.”

Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has pledged $300 million to help an international organization develop a vaccine. This is an additional $200 million from last month’s pledge. Abe has said, “The development of vaccines is in progress, collecting all the wisdom of humans […] we need to be well prepared to deliver them speedily to developing countries once they become available.”

Japan’s health ministry has laid out a plan designed to shorten the time needed to put coronavirus vaccines into practical use and speed up the process by simultaneously promoting both research and development and its production.

The health ministry has earmarked about $455 million, as subsidies to institutions involved in vaccine development in the proposed second supplementary budget for the fiscal year, and also about $1.3 billion in the extra budget to encourage private companies to invest in production facilities.

It normally takes a few years to develop and mass produce a vaccine, but the ministry’s officials say the hope to reduce the time substantially, and to start vaccinating the public in the first half of next year.

Author: Camryn Thomas

Hong Kong Tiananmen Vigil banned on “health grounds”

About 2,000 riot officers will be deployed on Hong Kong Island while another 1,000 will be in other districts, such as Mong Kok.

Over 3,00 riot officers will be deployed today, Thursday, June 4, to enforce the ban against the annual candlelight vigil, commemorating the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre (a student-movement resulting in the deaths of hundreds). This will be the first time in 30 years that  people have not been allowed to gather.

The ban was enforced on “health grounds,” however, it was also said by police that those who split into smaller groups would still be breaking the law. This warning of heavy police came as organizers of the rally at Victoria Park said they planned to go regardless, in groups of eight or less, the limit due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Roughly 2,000 of the riot officers will be deployed on Hong Kong Island with two water cannons stationed at the government headquarters in Admiralty. The remaining 1,000 officers will be based in other districts with another water cannon in West Kowloon.

Organizer Lee Cheuk-yan said that he expected police to issue them fines for breaching the eight-person limit by factoring in the people around them, as they used as similar strategy for the May 1st Labor Day demonstration. He questioned, however, how the authorities could conclude that all those attending the vigil at Victoria Park would be gathering for the same purpose. “I could be commemorating the mother of a Tiananmen Square victim. Another person could be thinking about resistance,” he said.

Police have also banned the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood from holding a separate vigil on Thursday evening in Sham Shui, rejecting their appeal on Wednesday. Barrister Anson Wong Yu-yat said the police interpretation on group gatherings was debatable as “No one can say with certainty whether the court will regard to or more groups of eight protestors physically assembling in a place, while keeping one and a half meter distance between each group […] constituting a prohibited group gathering.”

Breaking the social distancing rules has a fine of HK$2,500 (US$258) for participants and GK$25,000 and six months jail-time for organizers. To avoid these fines, and other possible ramifications, the Alliance will also be holding online tributes for those world-wide to participate.

The way that Hong Kong (and more widely the People’s Republic of China, which is exercising increased authority over this territory) is dealing with protests and questions of health in a time of pandemic can function as an interesting comparison for cases of protests and mass gatherings in other parts of the world also still buffeted by COVID-19. The government’s use of public health guidance to manage non-health-related policy issues also raises questions.

Author: Camryn Thomas

COVID 19’s Religious Consequences in Singapore

Due to COVID-19, Singaporeans have been navigating religious aspects of quarantine since early April, when the Singapore Christian community had to experience Good Friday and Easter Sunday differently than usual. The Muslim community, knowing it would have to experience Ramadan differently this year as well, shared sympathies with the Christian community, most notably in a letter of encouragement written by the Mufti of Singapore, Nazirudin Mohd Nasir.

Since then, places of worship have been closed in order to help prevent the spread of the virus, making it difficult for citizens to continue religious practices. As Singapore entered Phase 1 of its “circuit breaker” on June 1st, the Archbishop of Singapore announced that Catholic churches would not reopen. Weeks after the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) publicized the required measures religious organizations must take before opening for private worship, Archbishop Williams stated caution was a part of “pastoral responsibility.” He also shared that the decision was made after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese studied the restrictions and requirements and consulted with parish priests.

Weddings, funeral services, and wakes with no more than 10 people present can still place, while abiding by the restrictions and requirements set by the ministry. The archdiocese is “looking forward to opening [its] churches for private prayer and adoration” under Phase 2, when some requirements are relaxed.

Mosques, however, were open to provide limited prayer spaces for private worship startin June 2nd. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) said the mosques would be reopened with “maximum precautionary measures” in Phase 1. The mosques will be open for limited hours with limited marked prayer zones, each accommodating up to five individuals at a time. MUIS has urged the community to give priority to mobile workers who are unable to perform prayers at a fixed workspace, while recommending that those who are young, elderly, those especially vulnerable to infection, and those with the ability to perform their worship at home to do so. Singapore is somewhat unique in its ability to regulate mosques in this way, since they operate under the umbrella of government-backed MUIS instead of as fully-independent local congregations.

Regular disinfection of common spaces, physical and temperature checks, as well as the national SafeEntry system are a few of the ways mosques are implementing safety. Others include requiring face masks, avoiding inter-mingling with others at the mosques, refraining from physical contact with greetings, and each worshiper bringing personal items instead of sharing communal ones.

The Muslim community also hopes to open for for congregational prayers and other activities during Phase 2, “as such, we urge the community to work closely with mosque leaders to continue to curb the spread of the virus by adopting the necessary precautions when visiting our mosques, and to visit mosques during this period only when necessary.”

Singaporean Hindu temples will carry on similarly to mosques with the amount of people allowed at funerals and marriages, as well as regarding SafeEntry and temperature checks. Some temples will require pre-booking to be allowed inside to use services. Devotees without booking are allowed to pray from the entrance however.

Devotees will not be allowed to stay in the temples for prolonged periods or consume any of the blessed foods within. Temples will not offer Theertham, Vibhuthi, Kumkumam, or Thulasi in the hands of a devotee, nor will there be any Safari blessing done. Kalanji and/or Prasadam may be provided with minimum contact.

But what is the largest religious community in Singapore, the followers of Buddhism, doing to continue their practice despite COVID-19? Like many other religious groups, the Buddhist community in Singapore is turning to online gatherings. Buddhist temples have come up with innovative ways to continue their spiritual practices like hosting guided meditation sessions, chanting and observing other rituals online.

To make offerings, devotees can make online accounts to donate directly to the temple and pay for items. The site has offered helpful information for staying safe during the “circuit breaker” as well as videos on how to cook vegetarian dishes, and sharing photos of their preparation of Vesak Day (celebrating the enlightenment of the Buddha). The Vesak Day procession, where typically thousands of Buddhists walk and bow around the Kong Men San Phor Kark See Monastery, was instead held though a Zoom session and live-streamed on the Buddhist Youth Network Facebook page.  Over 30 Buddhist families participated in performing this ritual at home together on this Zoom call, inspiring hundreds of others.

As debates rage in the United States and around the world about the best way to manage religious obligations and personal freedoms for the practice of religion even in a time of pandemic, the Singaporean case of regulation across a number of different world faiths can prompt reflection on the balance between personal devotion and community safety.

Author: Camryn Thomas

Indonesian Islamic extremists see Covid-19 as a godsend?

Sidney Jones, the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, is well-known for being a sharp eye and a clear voice on extremist Muslim groups in Indonesia. Her institute put out a report last month on “Covid-19 and the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia (MIT),” and it’s a fascinating look at a very different set of security concerns in this time of global pandemic.

Surprisingly, the radical group in this report is not new (violent interreligious conflict has been seen in the province of Central Sulawesi off-and-on for over two decades, since the fall of the Suharto regime), but had a new inspiration from the current pandemic. From the report:

The arrival of Covid-19 in Indonesia instilled a new optimism in MIT. … They saw that not only was it infecting and killing kafirs (non-believers) but it was also weakening the economies of all the states engaged in the war against ISIS, including America, Britain,Australia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran  –  and Indonesia. This belief was enough to convince the tiny group of combatants that they could eventually defeat the Indonesian state.
Although much of this 8-page document really gets in the weeds of this tiny minority of extremists (there is a reason why Sidney Jones is a go-to expert on Southeast Asian Islamic terrorism for governments around the world), it also presents a fascinating picture of the alternative interpretation of this crisis from a very different point of view.
Read more:

South-Asian Countries Have a Lower Coronavirus Case-Count

Slum dwellers stand in marked circles as they queue to receive relief material during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Kolkata on April 30, 2020. (Photo by Dibyangshu SARKAR / AFP) (Photo by DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP via Getty Images)
Residents in Kolkata, India, line up to receive relief packages on April 30.

As reported recently in Foreign Policy magazine, the countries making up South Asia account for 25 percent of the world’s population, yet only 2 percent of the total confirmed coronavirus infections. Months after the first recorded case in the region, South Asia has only roughly 60,000 confirmed cases. The US has over a million confirmed cases, while Spain and Italy each are hovering just under a quarter-million.

From the article:

Parsing the numbers. South Asia’s relatively low case numbers are a bit of a puzzle, especially given high population density and poor health care systems across the region. An immediate reaction is to call into question its testing capacity. India has so far conducted only 830,201 tests, or 614 for every 1 million people—among the lowest rates of testing in the world. But if India’s low rate of testing were hiding a massive outbreak, it would show up in other ways. Only 4 percent of India’s coronavirus tests have returned positive, compared with around 17 percent in the United States, implying that the virus is less widespread in India.

Another indicator of a larger outbreak would be the number of deaths. But here the data also shows South Asia in a favorable light. While the United States has recorded more than 60,000 deaths from COVID-19, India counts only 1,079 so far. Those numbers are likely higher—only one-fifth of deaths in India tend to be medically certified—but it is not as if there has been a massive surge in hospital admissions.

Using India’s data as a proxy for the region, the likely takeaway would be that South Asian countries have either succeeded in flattening their curves for now or that they are still in the early stages of their outbreaks. If it’s the latter, then the current state of lockdown ensures the coronavirus won’t spread too rapidly.

What are South Asian countries doing right? What should Western countries learn from them in order to stop the spread of the pandemic?

Read more here:

A Coronavirus Mystery: Why Are There So Few Cases in South Asia?

Author: Camryn Thomas