Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are leaving their zero-Covid policies behind, but they aren't ready to open up, experts warn

Passengers scan an app to monitor their health status before boarding a yacht in Langkawi, Malaysia, on September 17.

Hong Kong (CNN)After months of lockdown, parts of Southeast Asia are leaving behind their "zero-Covid" policy and charting a path toward living with the virus -- despite experts' warnings that it may be too early to do so.

Covid-19 swept across the region this summer, fueled by the highly infectious Delta variant, with cases climbing steeply in July and peaking in most countries by August.
Now, governments including Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are looking to revive their economies -- particularly the vital tourism industry -- by reopening borders and public spaces. But experts worry that low vaccination rates in much of the region, and the widespread use of lower-efficacy vaccines including China's Sinovac, could lead to a catastrophe.
      Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said if vaccination rates aren't high enough with high-efficacy vaccines before restrictions are lifted, health care systems in Southeast Asia could quickly become overwhelmed.
        "You're going to see this spike of severe cases then it's going to overwhelm the ICU ... beds, ventilators, there's going to be a shortage capacity challenge," he said.
          But for much of the public and many leaders across the region, there seem to be few other options. Vaccines are in short supply, and for many Southeast Asian countries, mass vaccination is unlikely to be achieved in the coming months. All the while, as people lose work opportunities and are confined to their homes, families are going hungry.
          Jean Garito, a diving school operator in Thailand's Phuket island, said small- and medium-sized businesses are desperate for borders to reopen. He wasn't sure how much longer the country's tourism sector could survive, he added.
          "If governments are not able to really compensate businesses for their loss in the short and long term, then yes -- if they don't fully reopen, we are all doomed," Garito said.

          End of 'zero Covid'

          From June through August, many Southeast Asian countries introduced strict restrictions in an attempt to control the Covid wave.
          Malaysia and Indonesia imposed lockdowns nationwide, while Thailand and Vietnam put in place lockdowns in high-risk regions. Under these restrictions, millions of people were told to stay at home whenever possible and prohibited from domestic travel; schools closed, public transportation was suspended, and gatherings were banned.
          Since then, daily new cases have dropped across the region, though they still remain high. According to data from Johns Hopkins University (JHU), the Philippines is reporting nearly 20,000 cases a day, with Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia all recording about 15,000 cases every 24 hours. Indonesia's infection rates have declined the most -- it's now reporting a few thousand cases a day.
          The peak has just barely passed, and vaccination rates are dismally low in some places -- but already, some governments are beginning to reopen.
          Vietnam plans to reopen the resort island of Phu Quoc to foreign tourists starting next month, according to Reuters. Authorities cited economic pressure for the decision, with the tourism minister saying the pandemic had "seriously hurt" the tourism industry. So far, fewer than 7% of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to CNN's global vaccine tracker -- nowhere near the 70% to 90% cited by experts as a requirement for for herd immunity.
          Thailand plans to reopen its capital, Bangkok, and other major destinations to foreign tourists by October, also hoping to revive its flailing tourism industry, which accounted for more than 11% of the country's GDP in 2019, according to Reuters. About ​​21% of the Thai population has been fully vaccinated, according to CNN's vaccine tracker.
          Indonesia, which has inoculated more than 16% of its population, has also eased its restrictions, allowing public spaces to reopen and permitting factories to return to full capacity. Foreign tourists might be allowed into certain parts of the country, including the resort island Bali, by October, according to Reuters.
          A group of residents gathering for an outdoor karaoke session at a park on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia, on September 19.
          Malaysia, which has the one of the highest vaccination rates in the region with more than 56% of its population fully inoculated, reopened Langkawi -- a cluster of 99 islands and the country's prime holiday destination -- to domestic tourists last week. Several states have also begun relaxing restrictions for vaccinated people, including dining in at restaurants and interstate travel.
          In some ways, the region's rapid reopening reflects the "living with Covid" approach in Western countries like the United Kingdom and parts of the United States, where daily life has essentially resumed as normal.
          Among Southeast Asian countries, Singapore has "openly come out" in shifting away from the previous "zero-Covid" policy, said Abhishek Rimal, regional emergency health coordinator at the International Federation of Red Cross. And though others have not made any such formal announcements, their swift reopening suggests governments are weighing the long-term sustainability of the strategy.
          "There have been discussions among scientists around the world -- what will be the fate of Covid moving forward?" said Rimal. "One possible scenario is that it will be an endemic disease moving forward ... We are tilting toward Covid (being) part and parcel of our life."

          Dangers of reopening too soon

          Experts warn however, that low vaccination rates in parts of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand will make reopening much riskier than in the West.
          Many Western countries have vaccinated the majority of their populations -- including the United Kingdom at 65% and Canada at nearly 70%.
          And though they are still seeing cases, with several reporting brief spikes after reopening, the number of Covid deaths and hospitalizations has stayed low in these Western countries, indicating the benefits of the vaccine.
          In Southeast Asia, test positivity rates also remain worryingly high. The World Health Organization recommends countries maintain a positivity rate of 5% or lower for at least two weeks before reopening -- but that figure is 20% to 30% in many Southeast Asian countries, said Rimal.
          "That clearly indicates that the absolute numbers of what we're seeing is not the true representation of Covid cases, because of lack of testing and contact tracing," he added. "The recent surge of Covid-19 has taught us one thing -- we cannot afford to let our guard down."
          WHO has laid out other criteria -- for instance, the global health body recommends governments only reopen if transmission is under control, and if their health systems are sufficiently able to detect, test, isolate and treat cases. Some of the countries reopening haven't met these benchmarks -- meaning "there's every possibility we can see a surge of Covid," Rimal said.
          But many governments in Southeast Asia may not have much of a choice. Vaccine