SEA: One year into the COVID-19 pandemic

As new rounds of lockdowns are imposed to counter resurgences of COVID cases, Southeast Asians are once again unsettled by the constant state of anxiety and fear.

The author(s)

  • Aitsanart Wuthithanakul Senior Client Officer
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Almost a year has passed since the world had to live with the coronavirus. COVID-19 has proven to be a shock that set off changes in lives all around the world. From the first wave in May 2020 to the third wave in February 2021, ways of life have been repeatedly turned upside down. This February, Ipsos conducted a survey with over 3,000 people in six Southeast Asian countries, namely Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

As new rounds of lockdowns are imposed to counter resurgences of COVID cases, Southeast Asians are once again unsettled by the constant state of anxiety and fear. Throughout the three waves studied, SEA countries show a major improvement in the sentiment phase. People are gradually leaning towards an acclimation stage, from 32% to 37% and 40% in each wave accordingly, where lives started to adapt to live under restrictions and settle into a new routine. However, some citizens remain pessimistic. Share of those believing that things will get better and restrictions will be loosened has diminished from 20% to only 12%.

 

Lives in a volatile world

COVID-19 has brought in many unavoidable limitations in operating businesses. Shrinking economies caused all SEA countries to face a large decline in household income, especially in the first wave (82%). The second and third waves present a much lesser income loss at 69 and 70%. Among the six countries, Thais had the second-largest decrease in household income at 80%, whereas Indonesians saw the largest decrease in household income at 82%.

The pandemic did not only affect the citizens' wealth; sedentary lifestyle and isolation exacerbated by remote work has also had negative consequences on their mental health. Over 56% of SEA citizens faced a mental health issue. At 65%, which increased from the second wave by 9 percentage points, Thais turned out to be the most affected among SEA countries. 

 

COVID-19 and the future of SEA economy

Citizens in SEA continue to express concerns over the economy as well as the future economic outlook. Only 42% of them—even lower than the second wave—agreed that their nation’s economy will be stronger in the next 6 months, while only 30% of Thais have such belief. In terms of their future household income, except for Thais and Malaysians, most countries are optimistic about their income recovery in the next 6 months, making up to an average of 8% expected increase in income across SEA. Despite a significant impact on the country's economy, majority of people (50%) are still expecting the government to keep an eye on the citizen’s health and safety. Iinterestingly, the second-most important factor for Thais is financial support to households (38%), a much higher percentage comparing to other countries in the region.

 

SEA’s new normal

81% of SEA become more mindful of how much they spend when shopping. Once restrictions on movement are over, 67% of SEA are unlikely to make a major purchase anytime soon. Among all Southeast Asians, Thais are the most likely to make a major purchase. In spite of that intention, there is great uncertainty (57%) since the level of confidence among Thais has declined from the second wave.

 

Online shopping and a cashless future are here

Up to 83% of SEA said that they have shopped online in the last 1 year, increasing from last year by 57 percentage points. What’s more, cashless payments are on the rise. 86% have used cashless payment options at the physical store—with a 54-percentage point increase in just a year— showing that this new payment method is gaining as an attractive alternative as consumers are keen to reduce physical interactions. All in all, the pandemic has set off long-awaited changes to people’s most fundamental day-to-day activities.

 

The new normal or just a new trend?

Many movement restrictions forced ways of living to change. Lockdowns promote 64% of all SEA to spend more time with their family. 54% also spend more time scrolling through their social media. Some agree that they spend more time streaming content (42%), exploring new hobbies (33%), and reading books (30%). Although people could spend quality time with themselves and their family, they unfortunately socialize much less with non-family members (54%).

Will these habits last long? The survey shows that some have indeed been temporary, short-lived activities. Comparing popular activities during the second and third wave, Thailand, for one, has largely been shifting back to their regular, pre-pandemic routines. During the first months of the pandemic, significant portions of Thais had read many more books and explored new hobbies. However, after the recent wave of COVID-19 by the end of 2020, these figures have decreased by over 10 percentage points.

 

SEA is ready to be vaccinated

If a vaccine for COVID-19 is available, 79% of Southeast Asians are ready to take it. The majority are planning to take it within one year, whereas 50% of Indonesians and Vietnamese are eager to get it immediately. However, Thailand paints a different picture. Only 35% of Thais would get the vaccine immediately—a figure slightly below the Southeast Asian average. The reason behind Thais’ lower enthusiasm is possibly the growing hesitation of side effects of vaccine shots as expressed on social media, a critical task that the Thai government has to solve. 
 

The author(s)

  • Aitsanart Wuthithanakul Senior Client Officer