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[Analytics] How Brunei beat Covid-19

Mosque in Brunei, Bandar Seri Begawan. Photo: Pixabay. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Brunei rarely registers on journalists’ radar. Surrounded on three sides by Malaysia and dwarfed by maritime neighbors such as Indonesia and the Philippines, the oil-rich sultanate has plenty of competition for the news media’s attention in Southeast Asia and the international community as a whole. Austin Bodetti specially for The Diplomat.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ most obscure member state has one claim to fame, however: through an aggressive strategy of proactive measures, Brunei has succeeded in containing the coronavirus where many of its better-known Western counterparts have failed.

Officials in Bandar Seri Begawan started by delaying the coronavirus’ spread to the sultanate. In January, Bruneian Education Minister Hamzah Sulaiman, Bruneian Health Minister Md Isham bin Jaafar, and Bruneian Primary Resources and Tourism Ali Apong arranged a press conference to report that they had restricted travel from China and the epicenter of Hubei province, in particular.

Further precautionary steps came in February, when the flag carrier Royal Brunei Airlines halted flights to Changsha, Haikou, Hangzhou, Nanning, and Shanghai and reduced flights to Beijing and Hong Kong as Bruneian authorities started screenings at all the sultanate’s ports of entry.

The Bruneian Health Ministry announced the sultanate’s first case of the coronavirus on March 9, several months into a pandemic still ravaging much of the world. Bruneian officials acted fast. The Health Ministry declared on March 17 that “any individual arriving in Brunei,” including a Bruneian coming from abroad, would have to “self-isolate” for two weeks or face a penalty of “imprisonment up to a period of 6 months, or a fine up to $10,000, or both.”

In addition to isolating arrivals from abroad, Brunei banned Bruneians and foreigners alike from leaving the sultanate on March 15 in a bid to contain the coronavirus’ spread. On March 23, the Bruneian Home Affairs Ministry further tightened restrictions that already amounted to some of the toughest in Southeast Asia, blocking all foreign entrants and closing restaurants.

Bruneian Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah put himself at the forefront of his country’s efforts to combat the coronavirus. He advised the public on the severity of the pandemic and conveyed the urgency of the threat in a speech in late March, calling on Bruneians as a nation to use hand sanitizer and wear face masks. Just a few weeks earlier on March 9, Bolkiah had expressed his thanks that the coronavirus had yet to reach Brunei, demonstrating how much had changed in the interim.

Officials at Brunei’s Health Ministry issued guidance on how Bruneians could protect themselves from the coronavirus, warning of symptoms such as “cough, sore throat, and shortness of breath” and noting, “If you are asked to self-isolate, it is important that you follow the advice which is there to help keep you, your loved ones, and your community safe.” The informational campaign led to the creation of a website dedicated to informing Bruneians about the pandemic, featuring a section meant to dispel misconceptions about the coronavirus proliferating on social media.

Even religion fell within the scope of Bruneian officials’ attempts to stop the coronavirus. The Bruneian Health and Religious Affairs Ministries cooperated to close mosques across the country and sanitize several of them; the call to prayer continued over loudspeakers. On a wider level, the Bruneian Health Ministry imposed limitations on mass gatherings such as weddings.

Brunei’s preemptive measures appear to have slowed the coronavirus’ spread there. As of June 16, the sultanate only had 141 cases and three deaths in a population estimated at a little over 437,000. Even more impressively, the country has not reported any new cases since May 7. In light of the unique circumstances surrounding the pandemic’s growth in Southeast Asia, Brunei’s zealous approach to its lockdown made sense. Experts on the coronavirus traced an early outbreak in Malaysia to an event hosted by a religious association and attended by over 16,000 Muslim pilgrims, including the first Bruneian to catch the coronavirus.

Despite Brunei’s interim success, the sultanate’s strategy will come at a significant cost. In 2015, tourism and associated industries accounted for 7.4 percent of Brunei’s gross domestic product; at the time, analysts expected that number to increase to as much as 10 percent by 2026. Getting to that point amid Brunei’s lockdown and the damage to tourism overall will prove difficult.

The sultanate’s earliest steps might have dealt the most damage to economic growth in the long term. China provided Brunei 65,000 tourists in 2018, more than any other country. The sultanate’s limitations on travel from China will likely jeopardize these tourism ties.

In the early days of the pandemic, Chinese officials criticized other countries for imposing travel bans, suggesting that Chinese diplomats will remember Brunei’s slight. Several Asian countries, such as Iran and Thailand, went as far as prioritizing the survival of their relationship with China over preparing for the coronavirus, but Brunei appears to have made a different calculation in the name of public health.

Still, Bruneian officials have made some concessions. On March 17, Brunei opened the Temburong Bridge, a project that China had funded in the hope of bringing the sultanate into the Chinese sphere of influence. Given that the fast accumulation of pedestrians undermined Bruneian officials’ messaging on social distancing, the move appeared designed to showcase Bruneian–Chinese relations at the expense of Brunei’s efforts to fight the coronavirus. As Chinese companies such as Huawei Technologies look to expand their foothold in the sultanate, officials in Bandar Seri Begawan will likely proceed with caution.

Beyond the risks that Brunei’s response to the coronavirus presents to its ties to China, questions about the overall effectiveness of lockdowns remain. Some countries that took a more relaxed approach to enforcing social distancing, such as Japan and Sweden, have yet to see the spike in cases that the United States has suffered. Peru, on the other hand, emulated Brunei’s proactive tactics only to find itself becoming one of the countries worst hit by the coronavirus.

For the time being, Brunei’s caseload has stayed low, and the sultanate’s substantial wealth will allow Bruneians to weather a financial crisis. In the past few months, an absolute monarchy that last captured headlines for threatening to stone members of the LGBTQ community has earned a much more honorable distinction this time around: winning the war on the coronavirus.

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