Ayako Inagaki
Ayako Inagaki, director of human and social development at ADB's Southeast Asia Regional Department

Southeast Asian countries are facing a fresh wave of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), mainly linked to new, more contagious virus variants and domestic and international travel. Adding to the challenge is the slow rollout of vaccination programs that are limited by supply in several countries in the region. Already, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on Southeast Asian economies, mainly because of mobility restrictions and border closures.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is working closely with the region to battle the disease and identify opportunities to build a green, resilient, and inclusive recovery. Assistance has been provided through ADB’s $20 billion COVID-19 Pandemic Response Option (CPRO) announced in April 2020 to offer budget support to governments as they address the severe macroeconomic and health impacts caused by COVID-19. ADB is also supporting vaccine programs through its $9 billion Asia Pacific Vaccine Access Facility (APVAX), which was announced in December 2020 to help its developing member countries (DMCs) procure safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines.

Ayako Inagaki, director of human and social development at ADB’s Southeast Asia Regional Department, helps oversee ADB’s COVID-19 portfolio for Southeast Asia—$5.8 billion and counting. She explains it in detail.

1. What is the current COVID-19 situation in Southeast Asia?

Southeast Asia is facing a resurgence in COVID-19 cases linked to several new virus strains and increasing mobility within and among countries. Countries in the region are strengthening containment measures and enhancing disease surveillance, but their vaccination efforts have been slowed down by a severe vaccine shortage among several Southeast Asian countries. For example, many of them are still expecting doses promised by the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), which delivers vaccines for free to lower middle-income countries.

Indonesia and the Philippines are among the hardest hit by the pandemic, and the number of daily new cases there remain the highest in the region. Malaysia also has recorded significantly more COVID-19 cases, especially since April 2021.

Until early 2021, Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Thailand, and Viet Nam had managed to contain the spread of the virus. All four countries have reported a surge in COVID-19 cases in recent months.

2. What has ADB done to help Southeast Asian countries respond to the health, social, and economic challenges brought by COVID-19?

ADB has adopted three approaches to bolster Southeast Asian countries’ response to the COVID-19 crisis.

First, ADB’s emergency assistance has helped countries obtain essential medical equipment for health facilities and food and cash for vulnerable groups. In February 2020, ADB approved a $2 million grant under the Great Mekong Subregion (GMS) Health Security Project to back government efforts to secure critical medical equipment and strengthen regional cooperation on disease surveillance in the subregion.

Under the ADB-managed Asia Pacific Disaster Response Fund (APDRF), two grants—at $3 million each—have helped address a shortage in emergency medical supplies and equipment in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Two ADB grants, including $5 million for the Philippines and $1 million for Timor-Leste, facilitated the delivery of food to vulnerable households. In addition, ADB assisted the Philippines in offering low-cost education technologies for distance learning.

*This video was first published on 7 April 2020.

Second, ADB’s countercyclical support through the CPRO program bolstered government efforts to mitigate the pandemic’s impacts on public health, livelihoods, and the economy. The CPRO loans for Indonesia and the Philippines, at $1.5 billion each, were approved in April 2020, followed by loans for Thailand in June 2020, Cambodia in July 2020, and Myanmar in August 2020.

Third, ADB has tapped into other sources to aid the purchase of critical medical equipment and improve health agencies’ ability to conduct COVID-19 testing, surveillance, and infection prevention and control. That includes a $125 million loan for the Philippines, and two additional financing transactions under the GMS Health Security Project, including $30 million for Myanmar and $20 million for the Lao PDR. In addition, the Philippines received $200 million in additional financing from ADB to use as unconditional cash grants for vulnerable households during strict community quarantines.

3. How have those projects and programs been implemented so far?

The GMS Health Security Project and the APDRF grant allowed Indonesia to obtain and deliver a large amount of medical equipment and personal protective equipment. The emergency food grant in the Philippines, which mobilized an equivalent of more than $500,000 in donations from the private sector, benefited 162,000 vulnerable households in Metro Manila. The APDRF grant financed modern COVID-19 testing equipment at the Jose B. Lingad Memorial Regional Hospital in the Philippines, which allowed the country to increase its testing capacity by 3,000 tests a day.

The five CPRO loans added emergency funding to governments’ countercyclical measures to protect the most vulnerable populations and economies. A country engagement framework embedded in each CPRO has allowed governments and ADB to monitor program results and impact on beneficiaries. The quarterly CPRO meetings and monitoring reports have ensured a high-level policy dialogue between ADB management and senior government officials and consultations with the private sector and civil society organizations. In addition, for the five countries receiving CPRO loans, ADB has allocated $5 million in technical assistance for analysis, policy advice, and knowledge sharing.

4. How important are vaccines to Southeast Asia’s COVID-19 response?

The threats posed by more contagious virus variants and the public’s demand to lift mobility restrictions have put an enormous strain on countries’ ability to contain outbreaks and save lives, prompting governments to accelerate national vaccination plans.

ADB has assisted countries in the design of vaccination allocation policies and the assessment of vaccination readiness. The $9 billion APVAX initiative has helped countries acquire and deliver safe COVID-19 vaccines.

The first two APVAX loans approved by ADB were for vaccine procurement in the Philippines and Indonesia. ADB made its first loan disbursement under APVAX in June 2021 to the Philippines. More disbursements are expected in July to finance contracts to vaccinate about 30 million Filipinos. New projects for Cambodia and Indonesia are expected to be considered by ADB’s Board of Directors later this year.

Implementing APVAX projects is challenging, considering the scarcity and complexity of COVID-19 vaccine supply and the rigorous regulatory approval requirements for vaccines under ADB financing.

5. What other assistance is in the pipeline for ADB’s COVID-19 support to Southeast Asia?

ADB will continue to help countries with vaccine rollout, as long as countries are in need. This includes collaboration with ADB’s private sector operations to strategically ramp up the production capacity of key manufacturers. As the vaccine supply increases, ADB’s technical assistance will focus on expanding the vaccine rollout in its DMCs and boost monitoring. ADB’s Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department has set up a Regional Vaccine Advisory Group to advise on COVID-19 vaccine quality, safety, and efficacy for ADB and its DMCs.

Early lessons from the COVID-19 vaccination rollout shows the importance of well-funded and functioning health systems. ADB will back reforms toward universal health coverage and strengthen health financing, human resources development, and health service delivery, especially among local governments. We will also work with the private sector to improve testing capacity, as well as the manufacturing capacity of the pharmaceutical sector in DMCs.

It is critical to accelerate employment recovery, including through reforms to encourage firms to create quality jobs and help workers prepare for the post-COVID-19 economy. Reforms in education and skills development to address learning and skills gaps will also be important.

Finally, ADB will assist governments in expanding the safety net to vulnerable groups in Southeast Asia, such as social assistance, unemployment benefit, and labor market programs for women, migrants, and low-skilled and informal workers.