Insight - Covid-weary world facing a distressing reality check

Long way: A woman passing a mural seeking to encourage the wearing of masks. The now-stalled US vaccine campaign will take eight or nine months to reach 75% coverage because of entrenched pockets of vaccine resistance in parts of the country. — AP

JUST a few weeks ago, much of the world seemed poised to leave Covid-19 behind.

US President Joe Biden declared the United States close to independence from the virus. Britons hit the dance floor to celebrate “Freedom Day.” Singapore’s legendarily strict government signalled it would begin to loosen its zero-cases approach and make life and travel more manageable.

But if those places were ready to be done with Covid, Covid wasn’t done with them.

The sputtering US vaccine campaign has run headlong into the highly-contagious delta variant. The UK’s reopening has coincided with a new surge in cases and fears of “long Covid” in younger people.

In Africa, deaths have spiked as vaccine supplies remain meager. And in Japan, rising infections have forced the already-delayed Summer Olympics to be played in empty stadiums and arenas.

Around the globe, people and governments are finding out that Covid won’t be thrashed into extinction, but is more likely to enter a long, endemic tail. With that will come delayed recoveries in the places that have had the least access to vaccines. And vaccine and resource-rich countries will still face their own health and economic aftershocks, as the United States and Britain are discovering.“The virus is going to do what it wants to do,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, “and not what we want to do.”Vaccines have made a difference – in the places that have deployed them widely.

In recent weeks, UK cases had risen dramatically, but there hasn’t been an equivalent surge in deaths, and the number of new infections has dropped over the last few days. The shots are literal life savers.

At its current pace of vaccination, 75% of the European Union population will be inoculated within two months, a level that may be sufficient to push back the virus.

China and the UK are running at a similar pace, according to the Bloomberg vaccine tracker.

But after racing ahead, the now-stalled US vaccine campaign will take eight or nine months to reach 75% coverage because of entrenched pockets of vaccine resistance in parts of the country.

Other places are in more dire straits: Indonesia, with a raging outbreak, is a year and a half away.

India will need another year, at its current rate.

In Africa, countries like Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa are at least a year away – or far longer, according to Bloomberg’s analysis.

Many lower-income countries are reliant on Covax, the programme set up last year to equitably distribute vaccines to every corner of the planet. But the initiative has delivered just 140 million doses of the 1.8 billion it aims to ship by early 2022, hurt by delays in supplies from India.

“The world is divided between countries which do have vaccines and countries which don’t have vaccines,” said Klaus Stohr, a former World Health Organisation (WHO) official who played a key role in the response to SARS in 2003.

In the have-not regions, “the virus is going to end the pandemic, not the vaccine, unfortunately.”

The pandemic struck US$15 trillion (RM64 trillion) off global output in the worst peacetime recession since the Great Depression, and the vaccination disparity is creating an economic wedge as richer countries recover more quickly than less-wealthy ones.

“It is creating a two-speed recovery process,” World Bank President David Malpass told reporters on July 15.

Rich countries may not be able to insulate themselves from that fallout, either. One analysis shows that inequitable allocation of vaccines could also drag on gross domestic product in advanced economies that have protected most of their citizens, depriving the global economy of trillions of dollars.

The burden is likely to be greatest in the world’s poorest places, Lawrence Summers, the former US Treasury Secretary, told reporters on a call earlier this month.

“Covid will be remembered as one of the grave economic events of this century for the United States, but potentially the gravest event for parts of the developing world,” said Summers.

There’s a danger this year’s V-shaped rebound mutates into a W shape, where growth lurches lower again before recovering, said Warwick McKibbin, a professor of economics at the Australian National University.

Governments are running the biggest deficits since the Second World War and have provided more liquidity in the past year alone than the previous decade combined – limiting their options to prop up economies further, McKibbin said.

The highly contagious delta variant has added to the uncertainty.

According to an analysis Monday from Bloomberg Economics the fast-spreading strain could widen the split in how fast more and less-vaccinated places bounce back.

Warnings of those inequalities have been ringing loudly for some time.

In Africa, only about 1.5% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the WHO.

The continent has been hit by a wave of infections and rising deaths, while health systems are in dire need of oxygen and intensive care beds.

The disparity is stark in the South-East Asian nation of Indonesia, one of the pandemic’s latest hotspots. There, cases surpassed 50,000 a day, similar to the UK’s recent peak.

But the lower-middle-income country has only given full vaccinations to 6.9% of its population, compared to 56% in the UK.

That lack of vaccination has contributed to the country’s 1,500-a-day death toll. In the UK, that number is less than 100.

That inequality is repeated around the globe. According to the Bloomberg vaccine tracker, the wealthiest 25 countries and regions around the globe have administered 18% of the total doses given, despite having only 9% of the population.

Those conditions are “a toxic cocktail for disaster,” said Joanne Liu, professor of global health at Montreal’s McGill University and former international president of Doctors Without Borders.

“It’s like climate change,” she said from Tunisia, where she’s helping in the Covid response.

“We see it coming, we don’t know how we’re going to stop it. It needs a huge collective effort, meaning solidarity, sharing and equitable distribution of vaccine and goods.”

Inequitable distribution of vaccines also could enable the virus to keep circulating and spawn more worrisome variants that could escape the immune protection from vaccines and pose a threat to everyone, including rich countries.

That would be especially alarming if those strains advance at the start of winter, when conditions are ripe for respiratory viruses.

“We are letting this virus run wild in most of the world,” said Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health.

Although the worst is likely over for the United States and its European peers, those fortunate countries can’t let their guard down. The UK dropped virtually all remaining restrictions on July 19, but scientists worry about rising numbers of people suffering from persistent fatigue, shortness of breath, cognitive issues and a range of other troubling problems.

About one million people in the UK already report having those “long Covid” symptoms. The country prioritised older-age groups in its vaccine drive, meaning a lower percentage of young Britons have received their shots.

China, meanwhile, seems no more able to move past the pandemic than any other country. The country successfully stamped out the virus a year ago and is now just a couple of months away from fully vaccinating three quarters of its vast population, an astounding feat. Life has been normal for the majority of its citizens through the past year, and the economy has boomed. — Bloomberg

James Paton and Robert Langreth write for Bloomberg. The views expressed here are the writers’ own.

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