SYDNEY, Australia – Across the Asia-Pacific region, the countries that led the world in containing the coronavirus are now languishing in the race to leave it behind.
As the US, which has suffered far worse outbreaks, now crampers stadiums with vaccinated fans and planes with summer vacationers, the pandemic champions of the east are still caught in a cycle of uncertainty, restriction and isolation.
In southern China, the spread of the Delta variant led to a sudden lockdown in Guangzhou, a major industrial capital. Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and Australia have also cracked down on the recent outbreaks, while Japan grapples with its own fatigue from a fourth round of infections fueled by fears of a viral disaster from the Olympics.
Wherever they can, people move on with their lives, with masks and social distancing and outings near their home. Economically, the region weathered the pandemic relatively well, as most countries successfully mastered their first phase.
But with hundreds of millions of people from China to New Zealand still unvaccinated – and with concerned leaders keeping international borders closed for the foreseeable future – tolerance for restricted lives is getting thinner, even though the new varieties add to the threat.
Put simply, people are fed up and ask: Why are we behind us and when will the pandemic routine for the love of the good finally come to an end?
“When we’re not stuck, it’s like we’re waiting in the glue or mud,” said Terry Nolan, director of the vaccines and immunization research group at the Doherty Institute in Melbourne, Australia, a city of five million people barely out of his last lockdown. “Everyone is trying to get out to find a sense of urgency.”
While languishing varies from country to country, it is generally due to a lack of vaccines.
In some places, such as Vietnam, Taiwan and Thailand, there are hardly any vaccination campaigns. Others, like China, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, have seen a sharp surge in vaccinations in recent weeks, but are far from offering vaccines to anyone who wants one.
But almost everywhere in the region, the trend lines point to a trend reversal. While Americans celebrate what feels like a new dawn for many of the 4.6 billion people in Asia, the rest of this year will be very similar to last, with extreme suffering for some and others in a limbo of subdued normalcy.
Or there could be more volatility. Companies around the world are monitoring whether the new outbreak in southern China affects the port terminals there. Across Asia, sluggish vaccine rollouts could also open the door to spiraling barriers that are inflicting new damage on economies, ousting political leaders and changing the dynamics of power between nations.
The risks are rooted in decisions made months ago, before the pandemic caused the worst of the carnage.
Since the spring of last year, the US and several countries in Europe have been relying heavily on vaccines, accelerated approval and spending billions to secure the first batches. The need was urgent. In the United States alone, thousands of people died each day at the height of its outbreak when the country’s epidemic was catastrophically failed to manage.
But in countries like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, infection rates and deaths have been kept relatively low by border restrictions, public adherence to antivirus measures, and widespread testing and contact tracing. With the virus situation largely under control and the ability to develop vaccines domestically limited, there was less of a need to place huge orders or believe in solutions that were not yet proven at the time.
“The perceived threat to the public was low,” said Dr. C. Jason Wang, Associate Professor at Stanford University School of Medicine who studied Covid-19 Policy. “And governments have responded to the public perception of the threat.”
As a virus control strategy, border controls – a preferred method across Asia – only go so far, added Dr. Wang added: “To end the pandemic, you need both defensive and offensive strategies. The offensive strategy is vaccines. “
Their introduction to Asia was defined by humanitarian logic (which nations around the world needed vaccines), local complacency, and raw power over pharmaceutical production and export.
Earlier this year, contract announcements with the companies and countries that control the vaccines appeared to be more frequent than actual shipments. In March Italy blocked the export of 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which Australia had designated to control its own angry outbreak. Other deliveries were delayed due to manufacturing issues.
“Shipments of the vaccine you buy actually end up on the docks – it’s fair to say they don’t come close to meeting the purchase commitments,” said Richard Maude, senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute in Australia.
Peter Collignon, a doctor and professor of microbiology at the Australian National University who worked for the World Health Organization, put it more simply: “The reality is that vaccine makers keep them to themselves.”
In response to this reality and the rare blood clot complications that have arisen with the AstraZeneca vaccine, many politicians in the Asia-Pacific region have tried early on to stress that there is little rush.
The result is now a huge gap between the United States and Europe.
In Asia, around 20 percent of people have received at least one dose of a vaccine; in Japan, for example, only 14 percent. In France, on the other hand, it is almost 45 percent, in the USA more than 50 percent and in Great Britain more than 60 percent.
Instagram, on which Americans once scolded Hollywood stars for enjoying a mask-free life in Zero Covid Australia, is now littered with images of grinning New Yorkers hugging friends who have just been vaccinated. While snapshots from Paris show smiling guests in cafes wooing summer tourists, people in Seoul are obsessive about refreshing apps that locate leftover cans and usually can’t find anything.
“Does the leftover vaccine exist?” a Twitter user recently asked. “Or did it disappear in 0.001 seconds because it’s like a ticket for the front row seat at a K-Pop Idol concert?”
Demand has increased as some of the supply bottlenecks have started to ease.
China, struggling with hesitation about its own vaccines after months of controlling the virus, administered 22 million vaccinations on June 2, a record for the country. Overall, China has reported having administered nearly 900 million doses in a country of 1.4 billion people.
Japan has also stepped up its efforts and relaxed the rules that only allowed select medical professionals to give vaccinations. The Japanese authorities opened large vaccination centers in Tokyo and Osaka and expanded vaccination programs to workplaces and universities. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga now says all adults will have access to a vaccine by November.
In Taiwan, too, vaccination efforts recently got a boost when the Japanese government donated around 1.2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
But all in all, Taiwan’s experience is somewhat typical: it has still only received enough doses to vaccinate less than 10 percent of its 23.5 million residents. A Buddhist association recently offered to buy Covid-19 vaccines to expedite the island’s anemic vaccination efforts, but it was told that only governments can make such purchases.
And with vaccinations lagging across Asia, so will any robust international reopening. Australia has signaled that it will keep its borders closed for another year. Japan is currently banning almost all non-residents from entering the country, and an intensive review of overseas arrivals into China has left multinational corporations without key workers.
The immediate future of many places in Asia seems likely to be one of hectic optimization.
China’s response to the Guangzhou outbreak – testing millions of people in days, closing entire neighborhoods – is a quick iteration of dealing with previous outbreaks. Few in the country expect this approach to change anytime soon, especially since the Delta variant that devastated India is now in circulation.
At the same time, vaccine holdouts are facing increased pressure to get vaccinated before the available doses are up, and not just in mainland China.
Indonesia has threatened residents around $ 450 fines for refusing vaccines. Vietnam has responded to its recent surge in infections by soliciting donations from the public to a Covid-19 vaccine fund. And in Hong Kong, officials and business leaders are offering a range of incentives to alleviate severe vaccination hesitation.
Still, the prognosis for much of Asia this year is obvious: the disease has not been defeated and will not be in the foreseeable future. Even those lucky enough to get a vaccine often leave with mixed feelings.
“This is the way out of the pandemic,” said Kate Tebbutt, 41, a lawyer who received her first shot of the Pfizer vaccine last week at the Royal Exhibition Building near Melbourne’s central business district. “I think we should be further ahead than we are.”
Coverage was contributed by Raymond Zhong in Taipei, Taiwan, Ben Dooley in Tokyo, Sui-Lee Wee in Singapore, Youmi Kim in Seoul, and Yan Zhuang in Melbourne, Australia.