COVID-19 and Southeast Asia

COVID-19 presented huge challenges to governments, businesses, civil societies and people from all walks of life, but its impact is very much variegated, affecting society in multiple negative ways, with highly uneven geographical and socioeconomic patterns. COVID-19 revealed existing contradictions and inequalities in our society, and compelled us to question what it means to return to 'normal'.

Despite profound challenges facing the region, its voices have been underrepresented in many academic forums, a part from a small number of regionally specific initiatives. In this regard, the research team at LSE Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre reflected upon what the crises meant for urbanisation, governance and connectivity in Southeast Asia, and contemplated post-COVID-19 urban futures by initially focusing on three themes in particular:

• Community-based initiatives in response to COVID-19

Firstly, community-led, bottom-up approaches in response to various problems resulting from COVID-19 in Southeast Asia needed to be identified. Much of the literature focusing on Southeast Asia's response to COVID-19 concentrated on state-led initiatives as well as the authoritarian nature of Southeast Asian regimes. While these are important issues and need to be addressed, such approaches tend to neglect other equally important movements and mischaracterise the region as homogeneous and wholly dominated by authoritarian controls. There have been various bottom-up initiatives in the region to support communities and slow the spread of COVID-19. Such cases allow us to imagine an alternative system driven by empowered communities. And it is also of considerable importance that analyses of everyday strategies of collective care and resistance adopt an intersectional sensitivity to how the uneven impacts of the outbreak, as well as unequal opportunities to access mutual support, have been conditioned by existing structures of oppression.

• Movements of different groups of people in and out of Southeast Asia

Secondly, movements of people in and out of the region need to be addressed. Although the significant impacts of the outbreak on international tourism can be readily observed, the relationships between COVID-19 and international students, tourists, and other privileged forms of mobility in and through Southeast Asia are not yet sufficiently known. Analysis should account for the expansion of infrastructure and transportation networks, such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative, that exemplify the patterns of extended urbanisation for which Southeast Asia has long been known. Roger Keil argues that COVID-19 has transformed from a 'disease of luxury' for the most mobile and most privileged to a 'disease of misery' targeting the most vulnerable groups of society. We see that South Asian migrant worker dormitories have become a COVID-19 hotbed in Singapore, followed by 'othering' by the state. Migrant workers from Southeast Asia have also been severely affected by COVID-19 including ones from Myanmar working in China and Filipino domestic workers in the Middle East and North America, but to what extent and how they are affected by the pandemic have not been discussed much. 

• Digital and technological infrastructures and visualisations

Thirdly, in many regions, emerging analyses and commentaries in the social sciences have swiftly responded to the lessons many governments’ COVID-19 responses hold for the societal implications of digital and technological infrastructures and forms of visualisation. For instance, the use of technologies such as artificial intelligence and facial recognition software, rapid geographical modelling, ‘smart city’ data capture, urban robotic infrastructures, and web mapping platforms have influenced policy outcomes and bear significance for data privacy, surveillance, and the future delivery of education, healthcare, policing, and other social services. Additionally, digitally mediated representations of the outbreak, including mappings of transmission and mortality and online ‘dashboards’, have shaped individual and collective actions, emotional responses, and imaginings of COVID-19’s spatial and temporal attributes. Despite the initial success of Singapore’s data-driven approach, the influence of which has reached well beyond the region, much remains to be said about how such digital and technological approaches have taken hold within Southeast Asia and what possible futures this might foretell.


The project involved desk-based archival research to compile initial published responses to the COVID-19 crises alongside our efforts to bring together a select number of emergent and experienced researchers and/or practitioners to collectively produce a compilation of reflections on the above themes. Theses reflections from the region are published on SEAC's LSE Southeast Asia Blog

SEAC compiled a growing record of published English-language scholarship on COVID-19 in the fields of development, geography, planning and urban studies, as part of SEAC's COVID-19 and Southeast Asia project. The most recent version of this record can be accessed here (updated on 30th October 2021).


Project period: 1 June 2020 – December 2022

Project team: Prof. Hyun Bang Shin (P.I.); Dr Do Young Oh (Research Officer); Dr Murray Mckenzie (Research Officer)


Project Outputs


  • Shin, H.B., 2022. COVID-19 in Southeast Asia. London: LSE Press. DOI:
  • Mckenzie, M., Oh, D.Y., Shin, H.B., 2022 'Insights for a post Pandemic World'. in Shin, H.B., 2022. COVID-19 in Southeast Asia. London: LSE Press. DOI:
  • Shin, H.B., Jin, Y., Koh, S.Y., Mckenzie, M., Oh, D.Y., Zhao, Y., 2022 'Postscript: in-pandemic academia, scholarly practices, and an ethics of care'. in Shin, H.B., 2022. COVID-19 in Southeast Asia. London: LSE Press. DOI:

Additional outputs and media