In the Asia and Pacific region, the countries that have dominated the world to contain the coronavirus are now lagging behind in the race to defeat it. As the United States, which has suffered much more severe epidemics, fill stadiums with vaccinated fans and pack airplanes with vacationing tourists, the Eastern pandemic champions remain trapped in a cycle of uncertainty, restrictions and isolation.
In southern China, the spread of the delta variant led to a sudden lockdown last week in Guangzhou, a major industrial capital. Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and Australia have also locked themselves in after recent outbreaks, as Japan grapples with a fourth wave of infections, made worse by fears of a viral disaster at the Olympics.
Whenever possible, people live their lives, with masks, social distancing and going out only near their homes. From an economic standpoint, the region has weathered the pandemic relatively well, with most countries having managed to manage its early stages.
But with hundreds of millions of people still unvaccinated from China to New Zealand – and with worried leaders keeping international borders closed for the foreseeable future – tolerance for restricted lives is diminishing, as many new variants intensify the threat.
Put simply, people are annoyed and wonder, “Why are we late and when, for the love of all things good and great, will the pandemic rut finally end?” “
“If we’re not stuck, it’s like waiting in glue or mud,” says Terry Nolan, head of the vaccine and immunization research group at the Doherty Institute in Melbourne, Australia, a city of. 5 million inhabitants coming out of the last confinement. “Everyone is trying to get out, to find a sense of urgency.”
While impatience varies from country to country, it is usually caused by vaccine shortages.
In some places, such as Vietnam, Taiwan and Thailand, vaccination campaigns have barely started. Others, like China, Japan, South Korea and Australia, have seen a surge in vaccinations in recent weeks, as they are still a long way from having vaccines for anyone who wants to take them. .
But almost everywhere in the region the trend is towards the reversal of fate. As Americans celebrate what appears to be a new dawn, for many of Asia’s 4.6 billion people, the rest of this year will look a lot like the last, with extreme suffering for some and others left behind. the limbo of a contained normality.
Or there could be more volatility. Companies around the world are trying to find out whether the new outbreak in southern China will affect busy port terminals. Across Asia, a hesitant vaccination could also open the door to lockdowns caused by new variants that are causing further damage to economies, toppling political leaders and shifting power dynamics between countries.
The risks are rooted in political decisions made months ago, before the pandemic inflicted its worst massacre. Since spring in the northern hemisphere last year, the United States and several countries in Europe have been betting big on vaccines, ramping up approval and spending billions to secure the first batches. The need was urgent. In the United States alone, at the height of the initial outbreak, thousands of people died every day as government management of the outbreak failed catastrophically.
But in places like Australia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, infection and death rates have been relatively contained by border restrictions, public compliance with anti-virus measures, as well as extensive testing and contact tracing. With the viral situation fundamentally under control and with limited capacity to develop vaccines, countries felt less urgent to place huge orders or believe in unproven solutions.
“The perceived threat to the public was low,” said Dr C. Jason Wang, associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine who has studied the policies of Covid-19. “And governments have responded to the public’s perception of the threat.” As a strategy to contain the virus, border controls – the preferred method in Asia – are limited, added Wang: “To end the pandemic, you need a defensive strategy and an offensive strategy. The offensive is the vaccines.
Its distribution in Asia was defined by humanitarian logic (which countries needed the vaccine the most), by local complacency and by simple power over the production and export of vaccines.
Earlier this year, announcements of contracts with companies and countries controlling vaccines seemed more common than actual deliveries. In March, Italy blocked the export of 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia to control its own rampant epidemic. Other shipments have been delayed due to manufacturing issues. “Purchased vaccine supplies that actually made it to ports – it’s fair to say they don’t even come close to supply commitments,” said Richard Maude, senior researcher at the Asian Policy Institute in Australia .
Peter Collignon, doctor and professor of microbiology at the National University of Australia who worked for the World Health Organization, put it more simply: “The reality is that the places that make the vaccines keep them to themselves. themselves.
Reacting to this reality and the rare complications of blood clots that appeared with the AstraZeneca vaccine, many politicians in the Asia-Pacific region tried early on to stress that there was no need to run. The result today is a wide rift with the United States and Europe.
In Asia, around 20% of the population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, with Japan, for example, only 14%. By comparison, in France it is almost 45%, over 50% in the United States and over 60% in the United Kingdom. China, which was hesitant about its own vaccines after controlling the virus for months, administered 22 million doses on June 2, a record for the country. In total, China has reported the application of nearly 900 million doses, in a country of 1.4 billion people.
Japan has also stepped up its efforts, relaxing rules that only allowed a small number of health workers to get vaccinated. Japanese authorities have opened large vaccination centers in Tokyo and Osaka and extended vaccination programs to workplaces and colleges. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said today that all adults will have access to the vaccine by November.
In Taiwan, the vaccination effort also received a recent boost when Japan donated around 1.2 million doses of AstraZeneca. Overall, Taiwan’s experience is typical: the country received only doses sufficient to immunize less than 10% of its 23.5 million people. A Buddhist association recently offered to buy Covid-19 vaccines to speed up the island’s anemic vaccination effort, but has heard that only governments can make such purchases.
While vaccinations are delayed across Asia, any international reopening is delayed. Australia has said it will keep its borders closed for another year. Japan prohibits entry to almost all non-residents, and in China, strict controls on international arrivals have left multinational companies without key employees.
The immediate future of many places in Asia seems to be defined by frenetic optimization.
China’s response to this month’s outbreak in Guangzhou – testing millions of people in days, blocking entire neighborhoods – is a quick version of how it has handled previous outbreaks. Few in the country expect this approach to change anytime soon, especially since the delta variant that devastated India is now starting to circulate. At the same time, vaccine distribution faces increasing pressure to be inoculated before doses expire, and not just in mainland China.
Indonesia has threatened residents with fines of around US $ 450 (R $ 2,270) for refusing vaccines. Vietnam has responded to its recent spike in infections by asking the public for donations to a fund for the Covid-19 vaccine. And in Hong Kong, authorities and business leaders are offering a range of decoys to reduce the public’s serious hesitation about vaccines.