OF SUBSTANCE AND SPIRIT
It is not entirely correct to check whether we should go for COVID-19 vaccines to attain herd immunity on the basis of the number of vaccinated persons against the number of incidence and deaths. It is one thing to get a few vaccination data from Our World in Data (OWD) for certain countries and compare them with their actual cases and mortalities to establish the efficacy of vaccines. It is another thing to explain them fully.
There is not just one reason.
First, there will always be varied results that one might find confusing. For instance, there are countries with high vaccination rates like Seychelles, Maldives, Bahrain and Mongolia with rising coronavirus incidence. Yet high vaccination countries like Israel, UK, USA and Hungary show declining incidence and mortalities. Statistics also show some high vaccination countries with volatile, moderately falling but still at elevated incidence levels. Low vaccination countries such as Japan and the Philippines are cited to show that when vaccination season started, incidence even leaped higher.
OWD shows only snapshots at a given time. Nothing tells us that the Philippines was rather late in getting the vaccines and rolling them out. Vaccination takes time to demonstrate its efficacy. Geography is another factor to consider. Uneven distribution of people in Mongolia, with a land area five times bigger than the Philippines and with less than four million population, against our 110 million, but mostly concentrated in Ulaanbaatar makes the virus potent in propagating itself fast.
Israel, UK, USA and Hungary can enlighten us on why rapid administration of more vaccines is crucial. The International Monetary Fund has time and again stressed that the challenge to pandemic mitigation is for the vaccine to win the race against the virus. It would then be quicker to arrest both incidence and mortalities. Mutations to more contagious variety could also be prevented. These countries procured and rolled out vaccines fast, to achieve a flatter, and ultimately falling, pandemic curve.
Second, it is helpful if we dig deeper into the OWD statistics.
Many countries with high vaccination rates have longer period for both confirmed cases and deaths to double. In Israel with 62.6 percent vaccination rate, confirmed cases double in 131 days while deaths double in 136 days. UK and US show broadly the same number of days although it is longer in the US with its extensive land area.
There must also be reasons other than vaccination that would explain the difference between high vaccination country like Seychelles with more than 69 percent that takes 43 days and 67 days for actual cases and deaths to double, respectively, while a low vaccination country like Bangladesh with 3.5 percent could moderate the doubling of cases and deaths to 205 days and 188 days, respectively. Taiwan, Nepal and Colombia also belong to this category.
Taiwan is an island country. Nepal is separated from India and the world by mountain ranges. Colombia’s population is unevenly distributed with eastern and southern parts covered by tropical rainforest.
It is weak to conclude that vaccination is not urgent. Thailand with a vaccination rate of only 1.9 percent experiences rapid doubling of actual cases in 22 days while deaths double in only 10 days. Singapore with over ten times higher vaccination rate of 23.3 percent of its population has one of the longest periods for doubling actual cases and deaths at 353 days and 375 days, respectively.
Upsurges cannot be used to argue that “mixed” vaccination results scarcely encourage people to go for the vaccines. It is not mixed: All other things being equal, vaccines do provide mitigation to both actual cases and deaths. Departures from the expected results are due to many other factors which should not be dismissed. Mass hesitation to go for the jabs is one. The others include lockdown fatigue and simple non-observance of the usual health protocols. Legacy problems like poor sanitation and public health system can also explain mortality trends.
New variants have also changed the equation. For example, in the Philippines, no less than the health department thas confirmed that COVID-19 B.1.617 variant, which was first detected in India, is now in the Philippines. This is game-changing.
Framing the relevant issue is a big challenge. It is not correct to directly attribute the bad macroeconomic indicators to the lockdown. Restrictive quarantines are the last resort of the Government for its failure to flatten the curve through proper public health strategy and timely implementation.
Our economic contraction of 4.2 percent for quarter 1 2021 cannot be attributed one-for-one to the recent ECQ which started only in March. The 14-month prolonged lockdown was punctuated by several attempts to re-open the economy only to close it again when viral surges reappear. It is more of economic scarring that drives fear and anxiety, this loss of market confidence and animal spirits that is behind such poor performance.
That reminds us of this famous quote from Leo Tolstoy: “When an apple ripens and falls — what makes it fall? Is it that it is attracted to the ground, is it that the stem withers, is it that the sun has dried it up, that it has grown heavier, that the wind shakes it, that the boy standing underneath wants to eat it?”
Indeed, no one thing is the cause.