Many countries from the RCEP trade partnership – comprised of the ten ASEAN countries, plus South Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand– are now scrambling to secure coronavirus vaccines while coping with an upsurge in cases. It’s a jarring reversal of fortunes for nations which had initially earned international plaudits for their handling of the pandemic, but have been forced to tighten restrictions in recent weeks as the health situation spirals out of control.
Most worryingly of all, some countries in the region seem to have been dangerously unprepared for the rollout of vaccines, which represents the best hope of getting back to something resembling normalcy and opening up their economies once more. While the necessity of reimposing stricter lockdown measures is likely to take a financial toll in the interim, the lack of a coherent exit strategy from the pandemic runs the far greater risk of endangering the lives of their people indefinitely as the virus continues to decimate populations.
South Korean strategy under fire
One notable case study is South Korea. After being lauded around the world for its aggressive track-and-trace system during earlier waves of the pandemic, Seoul has struggled to control the virus in recent months. Daily cases have reached record levels over the past few weeks, while the government’s earlier success appears to have prompted a false sense of security when it comes to implementing a vaccine program.
Instead of racing to secure supplies like many of their cohorts, Seoul made a conscious decision to bide its time; in a stark illustration of that risky approach, the government’s initial budget for 2021 did not allocate any funds for vaccine procurement at all. President Moon Jae-in, whose approval ratings are plumbing all-time lows, was criticized heavily for the move, with six out of ten Koreans saying they prioritized expedient vaccination at the present juncture. In response, the government has since performed a U-turn on the subject, rushing to secure enough doses of viable vaccines to inoculate the population—though, due to Seoul’s late start in acquiring the vaccines, dose delivery will be delayed compared to other wealthy nations.
However, problems still remain. South Korea’s scattergun approach to vaccine acquisition means that some of the products they have purchased require specialist freezing technologies during transit and storage. As yet, no detailed plan has been forthcoming on how and when the government plans to handle distribution, with prominent logistics and manufacturing companies in the country admitting that no deal has yet been struck. To make matters worse, South Korea has a very recent history of botching the handling of vaccinations, with a 2020 flu prevention program left in tatters after countless vaccines were allowed to rest at room temperature for a prolonged period, thus spoiling the batch—raising serious questions about whether it’s up to the task of rolling out Covid inoculations.
Thailand and Indonesia struggling as well
That kind of sluggish response to vaccine uptake is being witnessed across the region. Thailand, for example, had enjoyed such success in containing the spread of the disease that no new local infections were reported for six months in 2020. However, accusations have surfaced that corrupt border officials may have facilitated the resurgence of the disease by allowing infected individuals to cross the Burmese border in exchange for bribes, while illegal gambling halls – allegedly tolerated by more shady officials – have only accelerated its spread.
Whatever the reason behind the second wave roiling Thailand, the virus has now spread to 56 of the country’s 77 provinces and experts have predicted that new daily cases could exceed 10,000 if the pandemic is left unchecked. Unfortunately, Thailand is significantly behind its ASEAN peers when it comes to vaccine implementation, with the first doses not expected until late February. The country has attempted to make up for the shortfall by pursuing its own vaccine development program, though the initiative seems to be woefully short of capital. In fact, the government has even resorted to a public crowdfunding appeal to raise the $16.6 million necessary to develop and distribute a viable homegrown vaccine, despite the fact that the national budget exceeds $109 billion.
Meanwhile, the largest country in the region is faring little better. Indonesia may have secured three million doses of the Sinovac vaccine from China, but disappointing results in a Brazilian clinical trial suggest it may only offer 50.4% efficacy. With nowhere else to turn, it’s likely that Indonesia (and many other Southeast Asian nations) will still put all their eggs in the Sinovac basket. That gamble could not only backfire with regard to granting immunity from the virus to their citizens, but also in terms of endangering their sovereignty. China, cognizant of its advantageous position in the region, may attempt to leverage that powerful bargaining chip to increase its standing in the community even further. Already, a top Chinese official has allegedly asked for the release of 60 fishermen from Malaysian custody, almost immediately after promising the country priority access to its vast supplies of vaccines. The implication is unmistakable.
Vaccine is only viable escape route
As recently as December, Bloomberg ranked 10 East Asian countries and territories among the top 15 worldwide for their response to the coronavirus pandemic. Experience with previous outbreaks such as SARS, MERS and Ebola had given them a bedrock of knowledge from which to draw strength, while the societal values of community and conformity (as opposed to western individualism) made implementing lockdown measures all the more effective.
It would be a shame, then, after such a positive initial response, if the countries of the RCEP failed to stick the landing. With a vaccine the only feasible way out of the predicament which is currently hamstringing economies right across the globe, places like South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and their neighbors must shrug off their lethargy in reacting to vaccine procurement and do everything in their power to secure enough doses to inoculate a majority of their populations. Otherwise, more people will die, more currencies will flounder and more countries will sink further into decline.
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