Home » The Covid-19 Pandemic and the Marginalised: Tourism as a Southeast Asian Case

The Covid-19 Pandemic and the Marginalised: Tourism as a Southeast Asian Case

Victor T. King

Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam (Brunei) and University of Leeds (United Kingdom)


In his overview of COVID-19 and its effects in the Southeast Asian region, Joshua Kurlantzick has said, “[it] was one of the first regions hit by the spread of COVID-19. The region’s public health response varied, with some states like Vietnam proving models for the world, while others, like Indonesia and the Philippines, faltered badly. However, they have generally taken a common approach in one area: nearly all have used the pandemic to crack down on political freedoms and civil liberties” (2020: 228). The response to the threat has been largely addressed at the level of the nation-state and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has not yet developed any sustained regional approach to the pandemic, though there have been collective statements of intent.

To varying degrees, governments are exercising increasing control over the physical movements, family life, social interactions, leisure and entertainment pursuits, cultural events, and consumer practices of the global populace. The various support mechanisms provided by governments also serve to increase centralised political and economic controls in state-directed programmes (Vatikiotis 2020).  However, funding and other support may only apply to certain categories of the population; often these include citizens and exclude groups such as migrant workers. Moreover, those funded and employed in the public sector usually enjoy greater economic security whereas funding programmes may exclude some areas of the private sector, the self-employed and the informal sector. These exclusions are felt particularly in the Southeast Asian region where labour migration, unregistered residence, refugee problems, and small-scale, daily and casual work are widespread, without long-term security. Difficulties have been acute in the tourism sector, when restrictions are placed on movements within and across nation-states; when social and cultural interaction is controlled; when such venues as restaurants, bars, pubs, night-clubs, theatres, cinemas, museums, heritage sites and “non-essential” retail services are subject to stricter and extended prescriptions (Kim and King 2020a, 2020b). This is an issue of particular concern to the Southeast Asian tourism industry, where there are many marginalised and illegal workers and migrants, not to mention stall-holders and street-hawkers. A significant proportion of those who work in tourism comprises women, teenagers and under-age children, and those households in deprived socio-economic classes with few opportunities for receiving support from government.

A Global Crisis: Definitional Problems

In attempting to address the complexities occasioned by COVID-19, there is a conceptual problem.  How do we conceive and define the virus? What are the COVID-19 discourses? The intellectual engagement with COVID-19 is complex in that many actors and interest groups clamour to offer their views, interpretations and solutions. Governments claim—as they occupy the main stage and have the power to define and formulate policies and strategies to combat the virus—that they are “following the science.” There may indeed be “a science” supported by government, but there are “several sciences” competing one with another.  Mark Konigsbaum documents these issues in his work on “the pandemic century” (2019, 2020); it links well with Michel Foucault’s studies on the ways in which knowledge and discourse are constructed, legitimised and given authority as “the truth” (2002).  The discourse on COVID-19 fits neatly into this frame of reference, although Hook reveals the complexity of Foucault’s concept of discourse and the methods used to analyse it; “there exists no strictly Foucauldian method of analysing discourse” (Hook 2001: 521).

What is significant, which resonates with the presentation of COVID-19 in the media, is that most laypersons are confused about the discourse of virologists, epidemiologists and other scientific experts. Even the term for the virus varies: Coronavirus, or novel Coronavirus, or COVID, or COVID-19, or SARS-CoV-2 (Wikipedia 2020). We are also uncertain about the statistics used to formulate policies and strategies to combat the “invisible enemy”; these statistics change rapidly as more infections and deaths are recorded; the location of the sites where rapid increases in infection varies; the boundaries and units used for collecting data remain arbitrary and imperfect. 

As of 11 March 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) recorded 117,799,584 cases and 2,615,018 deaths (WHO 2021). The WHO data do not map exactly onto those presented by other global statistical dashboards. For example, we have databases, updates and tracking from such other providers as Worldometer (2021a), which has recorded 119,120,511 cases and 2,641,790 deaths as of 12 March 2021; there is also the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) (2021) and Johns Hopkins University (JHU) (2021). The WHO statistics consistently lag behind other major organisations. Yet, political decision-makers and the experts who advise them have to proceed to address the virus on the basis of inadequate knowledge and statistics.

In the specific case of Southeast Asia, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have had a relatively modest impact, at least on the basis of the official statistics. On 12 March 2021, the ASEAN countries recorded 2,562,842 cases, with 55,210 deaths (Worldometer, 2021a). These figures are certainly under-estimates, particularly in such countries as Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar where together only 145,858 cases have been listed so far (most of them in Myanmar [142,114]), with 3,237 deaths in these four countries (Cambodia recording one death and Lao PDR no deaths; Vietnam 35 and Myanmar 3,201) with an estimated total population of around 176 million in 2021 (Worldometer 2021b). With close proximity to mainland China, and close interrelationships through tourism and economic activities, and with Vietnam, Lao PDR and Myanmar sharing land borders with China, it seems unlikely that these figures for mainland Southeast Asia give an accurate record when the level of testing per million of population is relatively low (in Myanmar [45,860], Lao PDR [16,311], Cambodia [32,893] and Vietnam [26,533]).

With the exception of Singapore (with tests per million at 1,326,935), all cases and deaths in the rest of ASEAN have also probably not been included in the statistical count because tests per million of population in Malaysia were only 205,078, Thailand 22,896, Philippines 83,043 and Indonesia 41,302. Brunei Darussalam, like Singapore, given its small territorial base and, in Brunei’s case, a small population, probably has more accurate figures and testing, tracing and tracking systems (192 cases and three deaths, with tests totalling 246,485 per million).

Crisis and Disaster

One problem of conceptualisation is that of referring to the pandemic as a global “crisis” as distinct from a disaster, catastrophe or emergency. The terms are closely interrelated. However, the Latin term “crisis’ (from the Greek “krisis”) refers primarily to a difficult or dangerous time when an urgent solution is needed; more specifically, in its original Greek meaning, it indicates “a turning point in a disease… [which] …could get better or worse” (Vocabulary.com 2020).  It marks a decisive moment in the progression of a disease, “a time of great disagreement, confusion or suffering” (Cambridge Dictionary 2020). Thus, it is a time of peril, conflict, contradiction and insecurity; it marks a breakdown in what are considered to be “normal” activities, behaviours and processes and, in addressing it, difficult decisions are required.

The current pandemic is a time of ambiguity and disorientation, when politicians deliver “mixed messages” and when our present circumstances are a prelude to an uncertain and potentially risk-laden future. The structuring processes involving time, behaviour and relationships are supposed to overcome these uncertainties. To address something complex and unpredictable in its consequences, which gives rise to confusion, contradiction and uncertainty, we also refer to the virus in “anthropomorphic” terms in the attempt to understand and combat it. The virus is given motivations, strategies and behaviours; it is a “thinking” virus. It mainly targets the physically, socially and economically vulnerable.  Perhaps strangely, it is not seen primarily as a parasitic genetic material that implants itself in the living cells of a host to reproduce itself, which then sometimes results in the death of the host and the parasite.

In addressing this assault on the very fabric of our being—physical, psychological and socio-cultural—we also structure our cultural behaviour and social interaction. The effects of this “invisible enemy” will, in all likelihood, prevent a return to “the normal”; and political discourse and the terminology of expert advisers are designed to structure our thinking in particular ways.  Rather than “the normal,” we pass through a period of transition, when day-to-day lives have been suspended, in the now frequently heard term “lockdown” (which according to the Collins Dictionary [2020] has been the most popular word in use in 2020). There is a range of other related words and phrases used with increasing frequency: “shutdown,” “self-isolation,” “quarantine,” “staying at home,” “furlough,” “face coverings,” “social distancing,” in order to effect “containment,” “flatten the curve” and achieve a “mitigation phase” and to reduce risk and vulnerability and avoid “community spread,” the danger of “super-spreaders” and to protect “key workers.” These are the chosen pathways rather than encouraging or allowing “herd immunity” (Merriam-Webster 2020). We are told by governments not to expect a return to “the normal,” but to anticipate something that is confusingly referred to as “the new normal.”  In this connection, the anthropologist Victor Turner referred to a “liminal” period, a rite of passage, and seclusion or separation, in which customary social and cultural expectations are set aside to prepare those undergoing transition to engage with a different set of norms and behavioural expectations (1969).

Moreover, for those who are marginalised, or migrant workers or members of ethnic minorities, the risks and uncertainties are even greater in a period of transition. A consequence of the nation-state response to the pandemic through the imposition of restrictions, closing national borders and conducting checks on physical movements and socio-cultural interaction is that people can turn or be turned against each other.  Crises situations can encourage collaborative responses, but in the case of a pandemic, scapegoats may be sought.  In efforts to “cleanse” and “protect” the nation-state, stronger identifications may be drawn between “us” (majority members of the nation-state) and “them” (migrants, temporary residents, minorities).  Social distancing and the imposition of certain prescribed forms of behaviour may lead to the rejection of others perceived as different and as vulnerable carriers of infection. In Southeast Asia, Lee Chen Chen has said, “Already the coronavirus is exposing the weak social protection for the urban poor and vulnerable communities, and this will exacerbate the growing inequality within certain ASEAN countries” (2020: 1).

The issues of agency, timing and consequences need to be considered in differentiating crisis and disaster in that a crisis is sometimes perceived as “a self-inflicted event,” for example, downturns in the world economy, or political conflict, terrorist violence and public unrest, human-induced environmental impacts such as the deliberate burning of vegetation and the resultant Southeast Asian “haze,” or, in the case of COVID-19 the human transmission of disease. There may also be a slower approach to the realization of a crisis. “Disaster,” on the other hand, is viewed as a change in human affairs: “sudden,” unpredictable and catastrophic in its consequences and over which there is very little, if any, possibility of exercising control. Rather than human-generated, a “disaster” usually covers such natural events as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, storms, tsunamis and landslides; sometimes these are also defined as catastrophes or emergencies with a sudden loss of life and property (Rindrasih et al. 2019: 95–96). In this regard, the COVID-19 pandemic could be considered primarily as a “crisis,” though originating in nature, and, in its tragic and unpredictable outcomes, might also be referred to as a “disaster.” 

Overall, the term “crisis” is probably the most appropriate to characterise the current pandemic. However, if we examine a range of events and circumstances for comparative purposes varying in their origins, agency, timing, scale, location, spread, duration and impacts, we might need to employ the term “disaster” for those which have catastrophic consequences. It is difficult to capture these multidimensional events and dynamic processes in a static classificatory framework (Neef and Grayman 2019; and see Cohen 2010, 2012; Cohen and Neal 2012); and a pandemic has both a “natural” and “cultural” dimension.

Crises, Disasters and Tourism

Relationships between crises, tourism and marginalisation in Southeast Asia require urgent examination in the context of the pandemic. The global tourism industry is extremely sensitive to changes that affect human well-being and security. If tourists perceive undue risk or instability in a recreational destination, they often avoid it and the possibility of a loss of “desired consumption.”  Tourism is also a system of interrelated processes and forces, affected by the local, regional and global political, economic, social and environmental context within which it is situated. In turn, it has consequences for the polities, societies, cultures, economies and environments within which it is embedded (King 2018). This is reflected in the current COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, tourism has a complex relationship with crises and disasters; it can trigger or amplify them, suffer from their effects, and can be used as an agent in post-crisis/disaster recovery. Its fragile nature thus requires risk reduction and response strategies (Neef and Grayson 2019). With the continuation of the threat of COVID-19, in spite of the increased availability of vaccination, the tensions between “going on vacation” and “staying at home” are likely to increase with profound consequences for the tourism industry.

Restrictions and outright bans on travel and close social and cultural interaction with others radically undermine the purpose and basis on which tourism functions. For example, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has projected in late April 2020 that job losses in tourism and travel could be as many as 100 million (with around 63 percent of those losses in Asia), and a reduction in GDP worldwide of US$2.7 trillion (with over US$1 trillion being lost in Asia-Pacific) (2020a). At the end of October, the estimates of job-loss reached 174 million worldwide and 87.4 million in Asia-Pacific (WTTC 2020b, 2021). Livelihoods in much of Southeast Asia, with the possible exception of Brunei Darussalam, where the international tourism industry is relatively minor, are in great peril, and especially in the major tourism economies of Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines and the fledgeling tourism economies of Lao PDR, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. 

Crisis, COVID-19 Controls and the Marginalised

In an important paper on “pandemic politics” in Southeast Asia, Khoo Ying Hooi argues that, though the response has varied across the region, the pandemic has offered increased opportunities for exercising central political control (2020). With reference to the case of Cambodia and its draft public order law, she points to arbitrary provisions which extend government control over such areas as assembly, press freedom and disinformation, surveillance, policing, the role of the military, access to and control over information, and movement. She suggests that it violates international human rights laws; those accused of offences can be subject to fines, arrest, or imprisonment.  More generally, people’s movements are tracked; they are monitored, and their privacy invaded. Migrant workers are more likely to be arrested and detained than citizens of the state.

With reference to Southeast Asia, there has been increasing attention in the media and among international aid organizations, NGOs and UN agencies to the consequences of COVID-19 for the vulnerable. Virgil and Lie (2020) investigated the responses to the pandemic of the ASEAN countries and the major issues which these responses raise for those, such as migrant workers, who have very little, if any, protection or support when they lose their jobs and income, and find that their basic needs of food, shelter, and health and other support services cannot be met. They state that COVID-19 “disproportionately affects minority groups and the most vulnerable communities across all member states.” In the context of the virus and the nation-state’s responsibility to protect people within its borders against infection, Virgil and Lie maintain that “The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 is exacerbated by systemic disparities in healthcare capacity and differing access to available health services.” The situation is even more acute for refugees, of which there are 200,000 in Malaysia, who have limited, if any legal rights; they fear being arrested, especially those who are illegally in the country, and they lack basic needs and access to support services (Abdul Waheed Parry 2020).

The “Rapid Gender Analysis” undertaken by CARE Australia is even more dispiriting in regard to the marginalised populations (2020). In a study in April-May 2020 of those groups at risk during the pandemic in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand (and the situation has clearly worsened since the study was undertaken), the researchers documented a wide range of concerns (2020: 5–6).  With increasing unemployment or reduced wages, the burden of managing household affairs has grown and fallen, particularly on women.  For migrant workers, especially women, loss of income has meant a drastic reduction in remittances sent home, or the exodus of labour returning to their home countries with increased burdens placed on their families there.  Sex workers and other marginal groups have suffered further exclusion from public decision-making spaces involved in providing support services, particularly healthcare. This problem is amplified when civil society organizations, NGOs and charitable bodies find that their funds have been reduced. Restrictions on physical movements and interaction have also made it more difficult to access support services. The report collected evidence of increased human trafficking and gender-based violence. Prejudices and discrimination against migrant workers have also increased. In the Southeast Asian tourism industry, which also involves the provision of sexual, escort and massage services, women in particular, where they retain employment, have had to expose themselves to undue risk of contracting the virus.

In addition, the minority groups involved in providing “exotic” cultural experiences and ethnic arts and crafts for tourists have also suffered because of the disappearance of tourism; they include: the “longhouse tourism” among the Iban in Sarawak (Dias 2001; King 1994); “hill tribe trekking” among such communities as the Akha and Karen in the northern uplands of Thailand, (Cohen 2008; Trupp 2014) and the sales of their ethnic products to tourists (Trupp 2014, 2015a, 2015b); “souvenir selling” among the Toba Batak in Sumatra (Causey 2003); elaborate “funeral rituals” and “mortuary art” and other artefacts provided by the Toraja in Sulawesi, Indonesia (Adams 2006, 2009); and the stunning “rice terraces” and cultural landscapes of the Ifugao of northern Luzon (Bilian 2007; Dulnuan 2014).  Akha women, increasingly known for selling ethnic crafts in the main sites of international tourism in Thailand, have more or less disappeared from the streets as their customers vanished (Trupp 2016).

The International Labour Organization (ILO), in its report on migrant workers in Thailand, has reported similar problems (2020). In March, before the lockdown in Thailand and the closure of its borders, there were problems over work permits and immediate job losses. ILO estimates that around 700,000 migrant workers were made redundant from March to July 2020, and with the fear of COVID-19 worsening, there was a large outflow of workers from Thailand to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar in late March and early April. In December 2019, there were 2,788,316 registered migrant workers in Thailand and an unknown but significant number of illegal workers.  The ILO has estimated that around 10 per cent of migrants have returned to their home countries in the early months of the pandemic, in the context of an estimated 8.4 million job losses, with 2.5 million in the tourism industry. Although officially illegal, the sex industry in Thailand, partly linked to tourism, suffered a drastic and probably irretrievable decline. Significant numbers of migrant workers, particularly prone to the disease because of crowded and poor-quality accommodation, were also coerced into working in spite of the restrictions, although they lacked protection from the virus.

Concluding Remarks

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for those who work in the Southeast Asian tourism industry, many of them migrant workers, have been devastating. To be sure, there have been some local imaginative and energetic responses to the predicaments which the virus poses. However, for the marginalised and vulnerable, there are limited options, and they may experience difficulties in accessing vaccines. In the tourism industry, there appears no likely turnaround in prospect until mid-2021, if then. The restrictions imposed by the separate governments of Southeast Asia have varied.  Cambodia has introduced some of the most stringent requirements. At the time of writing, the suspension of visa exemptions, visas on arrival, e-visas, the need to provide evidence of medical certification issued within 72 hours before travel, medical insurance of up to US$50,000, a swab test on arrival, a 14-day quarantine, a re-test on the fourteenth day, and a deposit of US$2,000 on arrival would seem to deter all but the most determined traveller (Pear Anderson 2020).

Some of the same restrictions apply to other Southeast Asian countries, but Singapore is establishing Reciprocal Green Lanes with specified countries and air travel bubbles; and Lao PDR has a fast-track immigration arrangement with China. The government of Thailand does not anticipate opening the country to mass tourism until mid-2021. Vietnam has temporarily halted all international flights and tourists are not permitted to enter the country. The Philippines has introduced a temporary ban on foreigners entering, though with some specific exceptions, and has imposed a General Community Quarantine for Metro Manila and a modified quarantine for Cebu City in December 2020. Malaysia reports the closure of 204 tourism businesses, comprising 109 hotels and 95 tourism agencies and warns that 70 per cent of workers in the tourism industry could lose their jobs if the borders are not opened within the next six months (the industry is estimated to lose RM100 billion in 2020). Myanmar has suspended all visas, operates a 14-day quarantine on arrival and has suspended all international flights until 15 December 2020. The Lao PDR has also suspended scheduled international flights, and its UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang has suffered the closure of hotels, bars, and restaurants. All Southeast Asian countries are still operating in partial lockdowns, some more severe than others (Pear Anderson 2020).

In these circumstances, the future is bleak for those working in the tourism industry and supporting service sectors, including the migrant workers, small-scale retailers and those operating in the informal sector, ethnic minority communities providing cultural performances and tours for visitors, those working in craft and souvenir production as well as a substantial number of women working in the retail sector, in bars, restaurants, night clubs and massage parlours. 

Given the uncertainties surrounding the future development of the COVID-19 pandemic and its socio-economic, political and health consequences, it is difficult to make firm predictions about the future of tourism.  The seriousness of the pandemic, its rapid spread, and the lack of knowledge about the virus suggest that the repercussions on tourism will continue for a considerable and undefined period of time, and the wider economic impacts will extend well beyond that.

We need to know more about the changes in travel behaviour and perceptions of risk and decision-making occasioned by the pandemic. Erik Cohen has also examined the coincidence, antecedence, interaction and dynamics of crises in the context of Thailand, and particularly its tourism industry (2010, 2012).  The post-COVID-19 tourism industry may never be quite the same again. Some businesses will disappear; some destinations may well be avoided for some time to come; there may continue to be wariness of the close contact entailed in airline, train, river and bus travel and on cruise liners. But, clearly, some rethinking is required when this crisis ends about the kinds of tourism which ASEAN countries intend to promote and sustain.

Finally, there are certain problems with the ways in which COVID-19 has been conceptualised and debated. Obviously, political elites and their senior advisers construct discourses in addressing the pandemic, and introducing policies and strategies by “following the science.” However, these discourses are frequently confusing and contradictory, as we would expect in dealing with a very uncertain future. Governments have to balance the need to combat the spread of infection with the negative consequences for their economies and the more general physical, social, cultural and psychological well-being of the populace, particularly the vulnerable. Some countries have performed much better than others in guiding their countries through these difficult times, others have made serious mistakes.  It remains to be seen what the world will look like towards the end of 2021. With the availability of vaccines there is increasing optimism, but whether this will make much difference to the marginalised populations of Southeast Asia is a moot point. What is certain is that some areas of our lives will have changed significantly, whether for good or ill. The “new normal” will be with us for some considerable period to come.


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Victor T. King (BA, MA, PhD, FRSA) is Professor of Borneo Studies, Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam and Emeritus Professor, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds, United Kingdom. He was formerly Executive Director of the White Rose East Asia Centre at the Universities of Leeds and Sheffield (2006–2012). Among his recent publications are UNESCO in Southeast Asia: World Heritage Sites in Comparative Perspective (ed., 2016), and co-edited books on Human Insecurities in Southeast Asia (2016), Borneo Studies in History, Society and Culture (2017), Tourism and Ethnodevelopment: Inclusion, Empowerment and Self-determination (2018), Tourism in East and Southeast Asia (2018), Tourism in Southeast Asia (2019 reprint), Indigenous Amazonia: Regional Development and Territorial Dynamics. Contentious Issues (2020). Email: victor.king@ubd.edu.bn.


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