One War, Many Battles: COVID-19 in Urban Southeast Asia.

AuthorWeiss, Meredith L.

By any metric, COVID-19 has disrupted Southeast Asia immensely, affecting even those countries that have fared comparatively well. Master narratives of the course of the pandemic across the region have been inescapable: which countries sprang into action and which lost time in denial or dithering; which implemented testing and contact-tracing and which remain short on tests and strategies even now; where the death toll and economic costs have been devastating and where they have not been quite so terrible. (1) The latest plot-lines in these unfolding dramas address when and from where vaccines are being secured, how effective authorities are in distributing them to their respective populations, and how they are preparing for and responding to new waves of infection.

These national stories dominate media coverage--including among domestic media--but what is often missing is the great variety of subnational experiences. In most of the states of Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, managing the pandemic is at least partly (and often largely) a decentralized and localized affair, with regions within a single country sometimes varying greatly in both the relative impact of the pandemic and in government and societal efforts to manage it and ameliorate its effects. National plans, directives, and statistics matter, but individuals have experienced this pandemic on the ground, where central regulations meet local implementation. Local actors can mobilize to implement, amplify, or subvert official directives from the centre. And it is at the local level where we observe the biggest gaps between aspirations and outcomes, as health workers deal with patients and communities, and workers and businesses struggle with the economic repercussions of the pandemic.

The essays that follow aim to deepen understanding of the politics of the COVID-19 pandemic in Southeast Asia, specifically in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, shifting from the national level and instead looking closely at experiences in 13 urban centres across the region. The authors of the Roundtable, most of whom are writing from the vantage of their own communities, and with the benefit of what creatively arranged field research they could safely accomplish, offer a range of novel perspectives on experiences of the pandemic in the region. Taken as a whole, the articles highlight the salience of local governance and local context to pandemic management and response. In particular, these pieces also address one overarching theme as well as providing other invaluable perspectives.

The overarching theme is the major divergence in both government capacity and the character of central-local relations. On the relatively more sanguine end of the spectrum, several of our authors describe broadly positive interactions and effective collaboration between national and local authorities. Towards the middle of the spectrum are those cases in which relations are more compensatory: local strengths offset weakness at the centre or vice-versa. Far more deleterious outcomes emerge from those situations in which neither centre nor city proves able to mount an effective response to the pandemic, and/or where the two are in conflict about how best to proceed.

We must emphasize at the outset that this Roundtable does...

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