The Lunar New Year or Spring Festival is set to be welcomed in parts of east and southeast Asia on 12 February. Typically, a busy period for traveling as the populace head back to their hometowns for the festival, this year’s celebrations are likely to be a low-key affair amid the resurgence of Covid-19 in several countries including Malaysia, parts of China as well as South Korea, and Japan.
Instead of preparing for major festivities as seen prior to the start of the pandemic, governments in this region have been warier amid concerns over the possibility of new clusters as people gather for reunion dinners and large family meetups.
Compared to their American or European peers, most of the countries in the region have enjoyed a higher degree of success in controlling the initial waves with lower death rates as well as community transmission. Despite this, the successes that were mainly credited to aggressive measures including strict lockdowns and intense contract tracing could slowly be drifting away as more countries in the region saw larger surges in terms of infections since late December. Daily highs were constantly broken in Japan and Malaysia while community transmission grew at a breakneck pace.
As a result, the Japanese government has called for a state of emergency in multiple prefectures including Tokyo while advisories for businesses to shorten operating hours were also issued. In Malaysia, the government has declared a state of emergency till August while most of the country including the capital, Kuala Lumpur was put under a strict lockdown that saw non-essential movements being curtailed. The country’s health tzar has already warned that the so-called Movement Control Order (MCO) could last for a month up until Chinese New Year to see cases dropped to a manageable level. South Korea that saw cases peaked in December would likely begin easing some of the social distancing measures as the situation continued to improve but any big events to mark the Korean New Year were likely to be put off.
Besides Japan and Malaysia, China where the pandemic began also experienced the emergence of new clusters, albeit sporadically in several northern provinces including Hebei and Heilongjiang as nationwide preparations for the Spring Festival entered full swing. With the largest annual human migration in the world or “Chunyun” approaching, officials have also been moving fast to contain localized outbreaks in cities in these provinces as a total of 407 million trips was expected to be made between 28 January and 8 March. Mass testing centers were being set up while cities, towns, and villages were also placed under lockdowns. The Chinese government is keen to avoid a repeat of last year’s scenario where cities were sent into lockdowns amid the post-spring Festival rush that accelerated the transmission. People have been urged to reduce travel or avoid large groups where possible as the country looks set to cautiously welcome the Year of the “Ox.”
2021 is a year of the Ox, starting from February 12th, 2021 (Chinese lunar New Year Day) and lasting until January 30th, 2022. It will be a Metal Ox year.
The attacks were conducted by the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), an umbrella group of rebels opposed to the elections on the basis that they were rigged. Several towns were seized by CPC forces for days, despite the efforts of United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSCA) troops. Ultimately, rebel forces were able to launch coordinated attacks on the northern outskirts of Bangui on 13 January. While these attacks were repelled, the latest round of violence has demonstrated Touadera’s limited authority over the country.
Despite the setback, CPC and a plethora of other rebel groups control over two-thirds of the country. Outside of Bangui, the rest of the country is impoverished and highly fragmented along religious and sectarian lines. In these areas, most of the population did not participate in the elections. While the rebels are typically disunited and poorly equipped, the local military does not fare well either amid a United Nations (UN) arms embargo. Instead, they are supported by a coalition of foreign forces under MINUSCA such as Rwanda and Bangladesh. Despite a mandate that includes expanding government authority over the entire country, UN troops have limited their operations to maintaining control of urban centers. However, increased attacks on UN personnel indicate rebel forces are becoming increasingly assertive. Further complicating the situation, Russian private military contractors have also been present on the ground. Their deployment is allegedly linked to exploration rights for gold and diamonds in the country. This move however did not sit well for locals and protests against their presence have also been reported.
As government forces are focused on maintaining the status quo, rebel attacks are anticipated to continue across the country including in the vicinity of Bangui. In addition to a further loss of life, the greatest impact will be on humanitarian efforts. Several international aid groups have suspended operations in parts of the country as routes between major cities are no longer secure. At the same time, aid workers still in the country have reported an increase in the number of disease-related cases, especially among displaced communities. The provision of basic goods even in Bangui is also in jeopardy as supply convoys have been stranded at border checkpoints due to the risk of attacks. Furthermore, the recent violence has also forced more than 60,000 people to flee their homes. They join an estimated 1.3 million others who have been displaced by years of conflict in refugee camps that are usually in poor condition.
Touadera’s second term in office will depend on the continued military assistance provided by a coalition of foreign forces. It will remain to be seen how he will stop the rebel attacks. With coalition partners having little interest to escalate the conflict, a ceasefire would have to be negotiated and perhaps a power-sharing mechanism involving rebel forces. However, such compromises have been done in the past and ultimately proved to be unstable. Regardless, he would need the support of multiple ethnic groups especially the Gbaya, the largest ethnic community, to govern effectively. Until then, the current status quo will continue to isolate large swathes of the population from urgently needed humanitarian aid and development.
What to look out for this month:
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