Economic growth in Southeast Asia is beginning to fall behind other parts of the region due to the region’s continued struggles with outbreaks of the disease and the sluggish rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the Asian Development Bank said today.
Into its Asian Development Outlook report, the Manila-based multilateral bank stated that growth in the 46 nations of what it terms “developing Asia” is projected to reach 7.1 percent this year, down slightly from its 7.3 percent forecast in April. Despite this small downgrade, this year’s growth estimate is a marked improvement over the 0.1 percent contraction that the region saw last year.
Within the region, however, “growth paths are diverging, with economies that have successfully contained the pandemic or are making good progress on vaccination programs forging ahead,” the report stated.
Among the problem regions is Southeast Asia, where the ADB has cut its growth projections due to the region’s struggle to contain outbreaks of COVID-19, continued lockdowns and restrictions, and slow vaccine rollouts.
Southeast Asia’s regional growth projections for 2021 and 2022 have been lowered to 3.1 percent and 5.0 percent, respectively, from forecasts of 4.4 percent and 5.1 percent in April. The region has also seen the largest gap – 8.6 percent – between economic forecasts for 2021 and pre-pandemic projections.
“Southeast Asia will recover at a much slower pace than earlier projected,” the report stated, resulting in weaker than expected growth rates in nine out of the subregion’s 11 economies. It added that the region’s recovery “continues to be curtailed by recurring spikes of COVID-19 cases, resulting in the reimposition of stringent containment measures in some economies, including the Philippines.”
The downgrade is more significant in the case of certain major economies in the region, including Thailand (0.8 percent down from 3 percent in April), Indonesia (3.5 percent down from 5 percent), and Malaysia (4.7 percent down from 6 percent).
Vietnam, which had the distinction of being the only Southeast Asian nation to register positive growth in 2020, has seen its outlook for 2021 slashed from 6.7 percent in April to 3.8 percent now.
Myanmar, in the throes of a severe political crisis, will see its GDP contract by an astounding 18.4 percent this year, down from what now seems like an optimistic projection of a 9 percent contraction in April.
The one Southeast Asian nation to see an upgrade in its economic outlook was Singapore, where high vaccination coverage – the country has fully vaccinated more than three-quarters of its population – will “continue allowing the economy to benefit from the rise in global demand.”
While much of Southeast Asia managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic in 2020, the Delta variant of the virus has scythed its way through many countries in the region in recent months. This has exposed governments’ complacency in sourcing vaccines, with just three of the region’s 11 nations – Singapore, Cambodia, and Malaysia – having fully vaccinated a greater proportion of their populations than the United States (51.8 percent of the population) and the European Union (58 percent). Six have fully vaccinated less than a third.
According to the ADB report, “the uneven progress of vaccinations is contributing to the divergence of growth paths in developing Asia,” as economies like China, Singapore, and Taiwan that have vaccinated larger proportions of their populations experience a quicker recovery from the pandemic slump. In its report, the ADB raised its forecast for “developing” East Asia, a region that includes China and South Korea, by 0.2 percentage points to 7.6 percent.
The development suggests that the impacts of Southeast Asia’s sluggish reaction to the latest outbreaks of COVID-19, including both the avoidable delays in beginning vaccine distribution and the unavoidable challenges of gaining access to adequate supplies, will continue to have long-term economic effects.
Even then, the region will remain vulnerable to a host of challenges, “including the emergence of new variants, waning vaccine effectiveness, geopolitical tensions, and the resulting disruptions to global supply chains.