Of the 10 member states that make up the ASEAN group, six have already announced some form of COVID-19 related control measures and restrictions. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos either already have or have plans to implement lockdowns of some degree.
Amidst these control measures, food supply has been a major concern for all the countries involved, leading to many consumers panic-buying dry food staples such as rice and instant noodles despite assurances from the respective authorities that government food stocks are sufficient.
More immediately, the food and beverage industry in each country responsible for the food supply chains are already concerned that a lack of public-private collaboration in this situation could lead to further food supply issues further down the line, and especially if the lockdowns end up being implemented for longer than expected.
“If severe restrictions are imposed by countries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, they will cause a ripple effect on the regional food supply chain,” said regional trade association Food Industry Asia (FIA) Executive Director Matt Kovac in a formal statement.
“Governments must work with the food industry in this time of crisis to [understand] the implications of disruptions and delays and try to ensure that production and supply chains are unhindered as much as possible.
“Governments [need] to keep their countries’ food production at full capacity where possible and for borders to remain open for food and beverage supply. A failure to do so will have serious negative consequences for the region.”
ASEAN Food and Beverage Alliance (AFBA) President Abdul Halim Saim that disruptions in the food supply chain were already being seen, particularly concerning logistics and manpower.
“Any restriction of movement, including the workforce, will affect the stability of food production,” he emphasised.
“The situation has now been exacerbated by the global increase in demand for food. Even the slightest measure affecting the free movement of people and goods will strain the global food chain further.
“Each country should review their existing food security policy as more needs to be done. Policy makers should involve the food and beverage sector in the process.”
ASEAN food supply woes
Indonesia has already shut down most entertainment outlets and public transportation, and is looking at locking down its capital city of Jakarta and some other areas, which would quarantine some 30 million people. According to The Star, the regulations for this are currently being drafted.
The government has attempted to assure the public that there will be no food shortages by issuing a statement hass urging food manufacturers to continue production in order to support local food supply.
“Food and beverage products play a very crucial role to fulfil society’s needs and the stability of this needs to be taken care of as part of the framework facing the COVID-19 virus spread in Indonesia,” Minister of Industry Agus Gumiwang Kartasasmita said in the statement.
“We appreciate that food and beverage businesses continue production at this difficult time [and will support] in terms of ensuring raw material supply.”
That said, this does not appear to have reassured the people by much: Panic-buying already started since the first cases were announced, and the police have had to step in to implement purchase limits.
Malaysia ordered a complete nationwide lockdown via a Movement Control Order starting March 18, which is expected to last until April 14.
The local Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) announced that essential goods companies, including F&B production firms, with current MITI approval would still be able to travel to work until April 14, but also required that manpower be heavily reduced at production sites.
“[MITI-approved] food manufacturers are required to issue individual letters of authorisation for employees to travel to work, [and are overall] facing challenges on maintaining the production due to the strict requirement on the reduction of manpower in manufacturing plants,” said FIA.
The country also appears to be facing a severe logistical issue when it comes to food transportation – vegetable farmers and fishermen have had to dump produce and stock due to obstacles such as roadblocks, shorter market operating hours and lack of manpower for offloading trucks.
According to Malaysiakini, farmers from Cameron Highlands, one of the country’s major vegetable sources due to its cooler climate, said they had to dump hundreds of tonnes of vegetables as they had no way to get these to customers.
These were fortunately salvaged and later donated, and online platform Lazada also stepped in to help the farmers, but the core issue of the food supply’s logistical issues still remains unanswered.
Interestingly, Malaysia’s lockdown did not only cause panic locally, but also in neighbouring Singapore which imports large amounts of fresh produce from the country. This was later resolved when it was announced that food would still be permitted through the Malaysia-Singapore borders.
The Philippines’ Department of Agriculture (DA) has requested an additional PHP32bn (US$628.3mn) from the government, which would mostly be focused on upscaling self-sustainable agriculture in the country, particularly surrounding the production of rice, corn, meat, chicken, eggs, fish and the like.
“With this pandemic, there is tightening of global food supply and we know that when there is not enough food, disorder is probable,” said DA Secretary William Dar in the request.
“While improving our food adequacy level, we should aim for food security. If no action is done, the threat of hunger is as real as the threat of the virus.”
Although Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte declared a ‘State of Public Health Emergency’ on March 8 and placed Luzon island (including Manila) under quarantine, food items and farm inputs will have ‘free movement’.
"[This is] the best way to sustain stable prices of agriculture and fishery commodities and food products,” added Dar.
But how well this is being implemented is questionable. According to FIA, processed food firms currently face manufacturing issues due to local governments restricting movements for people and goods
Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha announced a nationwide lockdown on March 26, banning social gatherings and any travel between provinces as well, following which the local Office of Agricultural Economics (OAE) was quick to announce that there would be ‘no shortage of food supply’.
"There will be no shortage of food and goods for domestic consumption, even if a lockdown is implemented -- be it for three months, six months or a year,” OAE secretary-general Rapibhat Chandarasrivongs told Bangkok Post.
"[The production of] key agricultural products like rice, fishery products, meat products, palm oil, cassava, coconut and sugarcane will not be affected by COVID-19.”
Trade organisation Federation of Thai Industries (FTI) chairman Supant Mongkolsuthree concurred, telling the public that panic-buying and hoarding was not necessary as Thailand is a major producer of the region’s staple foods such as rice, instant noodles and canned fish.
"Thai producers have enough capacity to meet domestic demand. Panic-buying of foods is unnecessary, unlike in other countries that do not produce them," he said.
“Thai people need not be concerned. I have talked with large manufacturers in the sector. There is not any problem at all.”
The food manufacturing industry in Thailand also seems to be faring better than most: Foods took up three of the seven local sectors for which ‘war rooms’ were established, which are joint working groups between industry and ministries to ensure supplies for necessities are sufficient and not disrupted.
The three food-related sectors which each had their own war room were: Processed foods, fruits and vegetables, and rice. Most food factories also remain in operation.
Vietnam was one of the latest to implement a lockdown, starting today (April 1) according to UCA News, but Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc had earlier already asked major cities to prepare for this scenario.
“Vietnam has entered the pandemic’s peak period, major cities have to speed up and take advantage of each hour and minute to carry out defined measures,” he said in a statement.
All inbound flights and public gatherings have been banned, whereas non-essential services shut down until April 15 at the earliest.
In an attempt to secure local food supply, Vietnam has opted to temporarily stop all rice exports and suspend all contracts. It is the world’s third-largest rice exporter.
Laos has also recently entered a nationwide lockdown, with all individuals banned from leaving their homes for any non-essential purposes. Passenger transport has also been suspended, according to Straits Times.
This led on from the lockdowns imposed in other countries in the region, especially Thailand, which led to thousands of Laotians returning to the country, causing fears that the virus may have been imported in along with them.
Laos reported less than 10 COVID-19 cases as of March 31, but because testing is not widespread in the country, experts believe that the real number may be far higher.
Government spokesman Chaleun Yiabaohe warned local merchants to avoid hoarding of goods or unreasonable price hikes, especially when it came to necessities like food and medicines.