Almost all countries pursue some combination of containment and vaccination in dealing with COVID. That said, when one looks at those regions and countries having sufficient financial and health system capability to do either, it is clear there are wide divides in reliance on one or the other approaches to COVID. And the divergences could slow down globalization and even reverse it, leading to a bipolar world.
Countries primarily relying on vaccines are those in North America, many in the Western Hemisphere, and Western Europe. Those relying primarily on containment rather than a vaccination approach include China (with Hong Kong), South Korea, Viet Nam, Thailand, Singapore— in short, much of the major richer Asian populations.
One metric to gauge relative success is mortality. Information on mortality is based on self-reporting reporting, so one can legitimately question the accuracy and reliability provided. But accepting there are levels of error or intentional misreporting and mistrust, nevertheless, the picture presents very different success profiles when looking at population size and numbers of deaths.
To provide admittedly a “selective” sense of the orders-of-magnitude between the vaccinators and the containers, we can construct the following table:
Other countries with over 300,000 deaths include Brazil, India, Russia, and Mexico. This includes some surprises but the overall picture remains valid so far: Containers have done markedly better than those pressing for vaccinations.
The jury is still out when it comes to the Omicron variant and how it will affect specially containment countries, and even some countries opting for neither and just letting the virus run its course, but more on that later.
Could this divergence in addressing the pandemic have possible implications beyond the health sector?
If the mainly Asian containment countries remain wary of the poorer performing vaccinators, the impact could have a far wider reach than the infection. Taken to an extreme, for example, it could result in supporting a more bifurcated global commerce regime, affecting imports and export flows, travel and tourism, short-term worker restrictions; in short, essentially creating written or unwritten barriers to (further) globalization.
In 2017 the Trump Administration officially withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which had been negotiated by the Obama Administration in 2016 and designed to lower both tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade. It had been signed by twelve countries, and significantly did not include the People’s Republic of China (China).
The end of the TPP triggered the beginning of a new effort. In 2020 the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), was signed and included China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam among the 15 country participants. It is estimated that it connects roughly 30% of the world/s people and output, many of whom were better COVID performers and reliant on a containment approach.
One could see globalization (which so far had proceeded largely unimpeded since the 1980s) being affected if not shaped by evolving pandemic dynamics, resulting in two separate global market and trade entities, each of which is sufficiently large to do well on its own and each wary to let anyone into their country from the other side.
Could COVID Provide a Basis for Greater Convergence Over Time?
The answer is a definite “Maybe.”
There are some signs that COVID vaccines have become increasingly seen as necessary across countries and regions. The Omicron variant is causing some countries to consider greater reliance on, and better vaccine technology, to cope with this incredibly transmittable strain.
For example, a major Chinese pharmaceutical company, Fosun Pharma, entered into an agreement with Bio-NTech, the leading mRNA German research company, to jointly conduct clinical trials for an mRNA-based new vaccine which would ultimately be commercialized in China, and conceivably more easily adapted to Omicron.
This is an implicit recognition that better Chinese vaccines are needed than those domestic products which have been provided to some 1.2 billion Chinese (and given as gifts in other countries) and have not proven effective against earlier COVID variants such as Delta.
Further, there are rumors that Fosun Pharma intends to invest significantly in a new installation to produce an mRNA vaccine, but this will take time, with probably no less than one year before it becomes widely available.
What Can Happen in the Near Term?
In the immediate future, there is the upcoming Winter Olympics in China, one of the key containment proponents. At this point, how this will play out on the global stage is unknown. Will infections brought by the global sports community stiffen China’s resolve to close off its society in the future? Conversely, will the vaccinator countries restrict entry for those unvaccinated, even with recent negative testing?
We have seen how this might play out with the different interpretations of Australia’s immigration policies and politics, by local and national authorities. Ultimately the Serb tennis player Novak Djokovic ranked internationally as the number one player in the world was not allowed to stay and compete in a world competition, the Australian Tennis Open.
This is an example of stiffening of attitude by some governments to entry by the unvaccinated, as well as barriers to any foreigners, vaccinated or not, into the containment countries and their markets. Then again, trade relations will still persist, even among a bipolar world of two major economic blocs, as nicely illustrated by the recent export from the Netherlands to Hong Kong of two shipments of hamsters that may have been COVID 19 positive.
While this has prompted a complete ban on animal trade into and out of Hong Kong, as a silver lining it has revived the prominence of the One Health dimensions and analytics underlying most pandemics.
Almost as rapidly as new COVID variants are discovered, regional global relationships are going through transitions.
Indeed, there are now countries that have opted for a third path, simply to let the virus run its course because their view is that it cannot be managed, the costs are too large in terms of economic damage, and herd immunity will ultimately take hold. A point in case, Mexico: The country never closed any borders or instituted any restrictions – interestingly, despite this approach, Mexico’s pandemic mortality is not completely out of line.
In any case, the upshot is that COVID and its known and unknown forms have broader political and economic implications and a much wider reach on intergovernmental relations that go well beyond the health sector.
“We are living in interesting times” as the overused Chinese expression goes.
With major contributions from Dr. Charles. O. Pannenborg, a member of the Lancet Covid-19 Commission (TF for Global Health Governance); member of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine Pandemic Committee; former World Bank Chief Health Advisor & Scientist; former Director at PAHO/WHO; and former Chairman of the Netherlands Commission on Global Health Research.
EDITOR’S NOTE: THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED HERE BY IMPAKTER.COM COLUMNISTS ARE THEIR OWN, NOT THOSE OF IMPAKTER.COM
FEATURED IMAGE: Group photograph of leaders at RCEP, Manila Philippines (14 Nov. 2017) Source: Flickr