While the exact onset of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan remains murky in terms of specific dates – the first confirmed recording of the virus was reported by the World Health Organization on December 8, 2019. 365 days of lockdowns, masks and social distancing later – Covid-19 has made 2020 a year like no other across Southeast Asia. 

Today marks the one year point from the first recorded case of the then-novel coronavirus, which evolved from outbreak to epidemic, and then global pandemic in an unnervingly short period. Across Southeast Asia, much like the rest of the globe, each passing month of the year has been as unpredictable and unprecedented as the previous. Borders across the region were slammed shut, an economic downturn followed and our assumed normal way of life was thrown out the window – with the window bolted shut, for good measure.

In Cambodia, the withdrawal of the EU Everything But Arms trade preferences, previously feared to be a potentially fatal hammer blow to the Kingdom’s economy, has been overshadowed by the virtual collapse of the tourism and garment sectors this year. Thailand has seen an eruption of pro-democracy protests, in part triggered by the government’s handling of the pandemic and growing inequality, as young Thais began a demand for societal change at the height of the first wave. Singapore had to address the conditions of its migrant worker dorms – which quickly turned into a hotbed for Covid-19 – and consequently opened a wider discussion around migrant worker rights in the city-state. 

Indonesia has been the worst hit of the ASEAN nations with 581,550 cases recorded, as of December 7. What many have deemed a major mishandling of the pandemic by Joko Widodo’s government has only been compounded in recent months with the passing of the Omnibus Bill in October. Touted as a boost to the archipelago nation’s faltering Covid-hit economy, major riots erupted upon its passing as the general populace saw it as weakening workers’ rights to the benefit of big business.  

Hot on Indonesia’s heels in pandemic mismanagement is the Philippines, which has been one of the region’s virus hotspots. Despite having one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns, President Rodrigo Duterte’s erratic and populast leadership means that the country is still Southeast Asia’s second hardest-hit with 440,000 cases. The partial closure of ABS-CBN, an important source of Covid-19 information for citizens, further worsened the response.

Malaysia saw a leadership change during the early months of the pandemic, while there have also been elections in Singapore and Myanmar. Both polls took place under unprecedented conditions, seeing not only an increase of masks at the ballot box, but also drawing controversy as opposition groups argued pandemic conditions created lopsided contests in favour of ruling parties

Across the region, migrants living in often crowded conditions have been disproportionately affected, while long-time refugees have been thrown into further limbo as resettlement programmes among most Western countries have come to a screeching halt.

The region’s tourist hotspots – the Gulf of Thailand’s sandy beaches, Siem Reap’s temples and Singapore’s business metropolis – have never before been so quiet, drained of people thanks to the immense effect on the tourism and aviation sector.

There have been some success stories – most notably Vietnam, with some of the quickest and comprehensive lockdown measures seeing the country avoid rapid rises in infections and disruption to business and society. The region as a whole has also not seen the rate of infection or number of cases seen in Europe, the United States and parts of South America.

The photoset below is not exhaustive, but hopes to paint a picture of Southeast Asia in 2020 – from the first recorded case in Wuhan, through the first wave during the start of the year, to where we find ourselves now on the brink of a vaccine as the year draws to a close.  

Let’s hope any follow-up photo series of 2021 includes less shots of masks and more of normal service resumed. But after a year that no one envisioned, take a look back at the region’s response and how Covid-19 impacted lives across Southeast Asia.

The first confirmed case of the then novel coronavirus was dated at December 8, 2019. In Wuhan, a masked crowd watches a walrus show in November 2019, blissfully unaware of what’s to come. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP

December 8, 2019: A man walks through early-pandemic Wuhan, as 41 confirmed cases of the virus were reported to the WHO between December 8 and January 2. Photo: STR/AFP
December 31, 2019: Bangkok would welcome 2020 with a fireworks display. The following month, it would record its first case of the virus. Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP
January 13: On January 13, the Thai Ministry of Public Health confirmed the country’s first case of the virus, who would turn out to be a 61-year-old resident of Wuhan. Photo: Candida NG/AFP
January 23: A security guard watches over a shuttered school in Hanoi – the country having confirmed its first two cases of the virus also in January. The country has though been one of the world’s Covid-19 response success stories. Photo: AFP
February 14: Cambodia allowed the Westerdam cruise ship to dock in Sihanoukville, having been rejected by five other countries. The move was interpreted by many as an act of solidarity between Cambodia and China, as Hun Sen seemed to play down the seriousness of the virus in its early days. Photo: AFP
January 25: Macaque monkeys attempt to eat parts of a face mask in Malaysia’s Pahang state. January would see the country – along with Singapore, Cambodia and the Philippines – confirm its first case of the virus. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP
February 19: Swab tests at Marina Bay in Singapore, as the virus begins to spread in the city-state. Singapore would in April declare a “circuit breaker mode” to stem the spread. Photo: Wallace Woon/EPA-EFE
March 1: Amid the global pandemic, Muhyiddin Yassin is sworn in as Malaysia’s new Prime Minister – replacing Mahathir Mohamad – wearing the previously unlikely combo of military regalia and a face mask. Photo: AFP
March 2: Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced the first two cases of the virus in the country. Photo: Irwan Rismawan/AFP
March 23: Testing takes place in Myawaddy, after Myanmar confirmed its first positive test that month. Photo: STR/AFP
March 11: A woman waits to cross the street in front of a poster for controversial Disney film Mulan in Vientiane in early-March. That same month, Brunei, East Timor and Laos all confirm their first cases as airports across the region grind to a standstill. Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP
April 14: April’s Khmer New Year in Cambodia is postponed, likely for the first time in history, over Covid-19 fears. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP
April 23: With the start of the Islamic holiday of Ramadan in late-April, Indonesians pray and celebrate with masks on while practicing social distancing measures. Photo: Juni Kriswanto/AFP
April 21: In Singapore, it was announced all foreign workers in dormitories were to quarantine until 4 May to curb rising cases of the coronavirus in the housing facilities. The case sparked outcry in the city-state over living conditions for the men, many of whom are from South Asia. Photo: How Hwee Young/EPA-EFE
May 5: Embattled broadcaster ABS-CBN is forced off air by the Filipino government, as a vital source of Covid-19 information is lost for many in the country. Photo: Fernando G. Sepe Jr
May 15: The first confirmed case among the expansive Rohingya population in Cox’s Bazaar refugee camps in Bangladesh are confirmed. Photo: STR/AFP
June 2: One of the few upsides of national lockdowns saw polluted Asian skylines become much cleaner – seen here in Bangkok. Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP
June 1: Nighttime in Singapore during lockdown is quiet, deserted and empty. Photo: Toh Ee Ming
June 1: Circuit breaker measures in the city state saw its once bustling streets turn silent. Photo: Toh Ee Ming
June 16: With flights and tourists remaining scarce, the once bustling Angkor Wat saw foreign visitors drop to almost zero in the early months of the pandemic. A photo-seller is seen here in June making use of his increased spare time. Photo: Alastair McCready.
July 1: Mandatory quarantine comes into effect for arrivals into Thailand – Globe reporter Wanpen Pajai took this shot just before her two-week stay after arriving back in June from the Netherlands. Photo: Wanpen Pajai
July 10: Singapore went to the ballot box under controversial conditions amidst the pandemic in what resulted in a strong showing for opposition parties. Photo Toh Ee Ming
July 18: Mask-wearing protesters took to the streets of Bangkok demanding democracy. The movement was in part prompted by what was regarded as the government’s poor handling of the pandemic and worsening inequality. Photo: Narong Sangnak/EPA-EFE
July 18: The three-finger salute of protestors, in a year of protest in Bangkok. Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP
August 17: Cambodia finally celebrated a belated Khmer New Year in late-August, five months later than usual. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP
August 27: While Vietnam is a Covid-19 success story, homelessness in Hanoi spiked during the pandemic, and worsened the conditions in the meantime. Globe reporter Ashley Lampard met with Hanoi’s growing homeless population in late-August. Photo: Blue Dragon
September 3: Tenet became the first Hollywood blockbuster back on cinema screens. Here, in Indonesia, locals watch a film in an open-air cinema to allow for social distancing. Photo: Timur Matahari/AFP
September 28: A truck transports Buddhist monks as they chant protective verses against the spread of the Covid-19 as it is driven through a quarantine facilities centre in Yangon. Cases in Myanmar would rise dramatically in September, peaking in early-October. Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP
October 8: Riots broke out in the Indonesian capital Jakarta as part of a nationwide strike against the controversial new Omnibus Bill, which critics fear will favour investors at the expense of labour rights and the environment. Photo: Bay Ismoyo/AFP
October 30: Cambodia’s annual October Water Festival and boat race was cancelled to stop mass gatherings – instead, Phnom Penh’s riverside was eerily quiet. Photo: Enric Catala Contreras
November 8: Another pandemic election, another win for the incumbent, as Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party dominate polls in Myanmar. Opposition group, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, decry the polls as unfair. Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP.
November 3: Unmasked and contagious. A visit from the Hungarian Foreign Minister in Phnom Penh (pictured here with Prime Minister Hun Sen) sparked a cluster of cases in Cambodia. Photo: STR/AFP
November 28: More community cases pop up in Cambodia after a positive case of Covid-19 – schools have since been shut and restrictions imposed. Photo: Kith Serey/EPA-EFE
December 8: Light at the end of the tunnel? Various vaccines produce effective results in late-November and have started to be rolled out in other continents, this week. Here, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is held up. Photo: Yui Mok Pool/AFP

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