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Southeast Asia Struggles With Record Cases Of New COVID-19 Infections

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Much of Southeast Asia escaped the worst of the pandemic last year. Vietnam and Thailand hailed their success stories. And now their time has come. They are struggling with record numbers of new infections and deaths.

Michael Sullivan joins us now from Thailand. Hey there, Michael.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How bad is it to be where you are?

SULLIVAN: To be where I am, it's not that bad. I'm in Chiang Rai. And up here, we don't have the same restrictions or the same fears that people have in the capital, Bangkok, and other red zones. It's been a really rough week down there.

There are new restrictions that went into effect on Monday. In and around Bangkok, shopping malls, bars, gyms, they're all closed. And there's a nighttime curfew as well. But the number of infections keep going up. And hospital beds for COVID patients are getting scarce. In Vietnam, there's a new lockdown in Ho Chi Minh City, which has also been posting record numbers. And Indonesia, Steve, is a mess - the worst in the region by far - a record 48,000 new infections reported on Tuesday. That's 12,000 more than India reported the same day, Steve.

INSKEEP: Wow.

SULLIVAN: And beds and oxygen are in very short supply.

INSKEEP: And, of course, India is a huge country that's had a terrible problem. But why is this happening now in Southeast Asia?

SULLIVAN: A couple of reasons, I think - one is that the new delta variant really seems to be digging in here very quickly. And then it just seems Southeast Asia wasn't ready when this third wave started a few months ago, back when the alpha variant was still dominant here. And they've been playing catch-up ever since. Some are starting from a better position than others.

But epidemiologist Dicky Budiman of Griffith University says, they all share similar challenges.

DICKY BUDIMAN: Our testing capacity is still low compared to the magnitude of the pandemic. And the second one is about the vaccination rate - not only low but slow.

SULLIVAN: Low and slow almost everywhere in Southeast Asia, he says, except Singapore - with vaccination rates in the single digits here in Thailand, in Vietnam and Indonesia. And there just aren't enough vaccine, Steve. And, he says, the vaccine that - many Southeast Asian nations rely on it now is China's Sinovac. And there have been questions lately about its effectiveness against the highly contagious delta variant.

INSKEEP: Well, given the limitations of the Chinese vaccine, have people been talking about giving a different vaccine to people?

SULLIVAN: Sure. And Thailand this week said people who received a first dose of Sinovac would now receive AstraZeneca as their second dose to boost immunity. And health care workers who have received two doses of Sinovac will now get a booster shot. And Indonesia is considering the same thing after dozens of health care workers there tested positive for COVID.

INSKEEP: How is all of this affecting another Southeast Asian country, Myanmar, which, of course, is in the middle of civil unrest and something close to a civil war?

SULLIVAN: Not very well - I mean, the coup threw the country and its vaccination effort into chaos. And Myanmar's COVID cases are now skyrocketing - a record 5,000-plus reported on Monday.

Here's a 28-year-old doctor in Yangon who doesn't want to be named for fear of reprisal from the military.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Since February 1 coup, military junta have arrested...

SULLIVAN: She says, a lot of doctors and nurses who participated in the protests against the military have been arrested or have fled. And there's just not enough health care workers left to treat all of the COVID patients. And, she says, the queues for oxygen tanks to use at home are getting longer every day. And many people, she says, are now dying because they can't find any, Steve.

INSKEEP: Wow. Michael, thanks for the update, as always.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Michael Sullivan.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "WE WELCOME TOMORROW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.