The virus comes back to sting Asia

The leading Asian economies handled the first surges of the Covid-19 virus well. However, with vaccine rollout slow, outbreaks of infection continue.

| 6 min read

China, where the pandemic began, soon got the spread of the infection under control and resumed normal working. The Chinese economy ended 2020 above 2019 levels, despite the big hit to output in the first half of the year during lockdowns.

Taiwan did a great job preventing much of the virus from entry to the island and contained the small outbreaks by strong action over test, trace and isolation. In Taiwan, a small GDP downturn resulting from the anti-pandemic measures was soon recovered, so the economy is now larger than in 2019. Taiwan, with a population of 24 million, has recorded just 2,533 cases in total and only 14 deaths, according to the latest world-o-meter figures. Hungary and Czechia, with a combined smaller population, have experienced nearly 2.5 million cases and 60,000 deaths by way of contrast.

In South Korea, there have been 133,000 cases and 1,912 deaths – well below the Americas and Europe on a per-capita basis. Again, strict test and trace policies with isolation of those infected have kept matters under reasonable control. In the first quarter of 2021, the economy recovered the small losses from 2020 brought on by restrictions on business and social contact.

In Singapore, there have been just 31 deaths from 61,000 cases. The low death rate seems to be based on a low average age of those contracting the disease, and good medical work in hospitals using drugs, tackling blood coagulation and providing good fluid management. The authorities also seem to take a narrow definition of what is a Covid-19 death, as opposed to death from other causes whilst also having Covid-9. Singapore has used a tough test, trace and isolate policy.

In Japan, there have been 687,000 cases and 11,591 deaths, also low figures compared to European or American totals. When their populations are combined, Spain, Italy and Belgium have a smaller number of residents than Japan, but experience twenty times as many deaths as in the Asian nation. Japan, too, has followed test-and-trace programmes and enforced social distancing and other precautions.

These much better figures for leading Eastern countries has made people ask if people in Asia are better disciplined in following the rules, or if they have some more resistance to Covid-19 from previous bouts of disease in the region. Japan’s GDP fell just 2% overall in 2020.

In the last month, there have been signs of a flare-up in the virus in Asia. India has been in the eye of the storm, with much media coverage of the large numbers and the pressures on health services. But other countries are also feeling the heat.

Japan has now had to put nine prefectures into emergency measures, with another 10 in quasi emergency. This allows the government to restrict social contacts, close businesses including bars and department stores, and require university students to learn online. Singapore has recently required people to work from home and imposed limits on the numbers of people in shopping malls. Taiwan has announced new lockdown measures as the government became alarmed about clusters of new cases emerging.

In most of these countries, the vaccination rate is very low. In Japan, only 2% are fully vaccinated. In South Korea, just 4.6% have had at least one shot. In Taiwan, less than 1% of the populace have been vaccinated. Singapore has got further, with 23% fully vaccinated and others with one dose.

A complex answer

There are a variety of reasons given. Japanese people are very suspicious of vaccines, with a history of allegations about problems with previous inoculations for other diseases and court cases that made the government liable if anything went wrong. This has made many Japanese people reluctant to come forward for a vaccine and made the government cautious about pushing them.

In Taiwan, people seem to have been reassured by the success of their policy of keeping out the virus and detecting it early where it did manage to leak in. The government seems to be waiting for a locally-researched-and-produced vaccine which may be ready by the summer.

In South Korea, the main problem is procuring the vaccine. The government wished to rely on US vaccines and previously approved the Moderna and Pfizer jabs in anticipation. Unfortunately, even though South Korea is a crucial ally of the US, Washington is putting home needs first. South Korea has not yet wanted to buy the Chinese vaccine, which is probably available if it wishes to purchase some.

All this leaves these economies vulnerable to having to forego a bit more service sector activity in the interests of stopping the virus. The issue is of world importance in Japan, as the Olympics are meant to start there on July 23. A large majority of the Japanese public wants the games cancelled, saying they should not put gold medals before lives.

The government, picking up the mood, shelters behind the International Olympic Committee and tells the public under Japan’s Agreement only the Olympic Committee can now cancel the Games. So far, the Olympic Committee has been resolute, and will doubtless look at ways of reducing numbers of other visitors near the venues and at new transport arrangements to ensure the games go on. It is, however, going to need some success from Japan’s lockdown policy to give the Olympic Committee the data it needs to justify the event.

The Asian countries, by going slow on vaccines, have left themselves more vulnerable to the virus which is now revisiting them to test their defences. Meanwhile, the exporting nations' exporters can benefit from the general global recovery.

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The virus comes back to sting Asia

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