Global vaccine access criticised as pandemic balance shifts

June 03, 2021 | 21:53
A reversal of fortunes is being felt across parts of Southeast Asia, as other markets that have suffered vast numbers of COVID-19 deaths such as the United States and European Union begin to open up and celebrate – just as pandemic success stories like Vietnam struggle to get enough people vaccinated in order to do the same.
1546 p12 global vaccine access criticised as pandemic balance shifts
Countries like the US and UK have suffered greatly but are beginning to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Photo: Le Toan

With EU member states and the European Parliament reaching consensus on legislation for a COVID-19 certificate in May, last week European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told an EU Council summit that technological infrastructure would be ready by June 1.

The 27 member states want the EU Digital Covid Certificate, to be launched at the start of July, to force a conclusion on pandemic restrictions that have decimated freedom of movement across the continent.

Together with a separate plan to allow fully-vaccinated travellers from countries outside the EU to enter the bloc, European leaders believe its vital tourist industry could get back on track from this summer. Heads of Greece, Spain, and Croatia, whose economies rely heavily on tourists and their spending, are especially enthusiastic about the certificate plans.

“If we continue like this, we have confidence that we will be able to safely reopen our societies,” von der Leyen said, adding the EU was on track to reach its target of fully inoculating 70 per cent of adults by the end of July.

Mindful that the bloc has procured up to 4.4 billion vaccine doses over the next two years – far more than is required for its population of 450 million – leaders have come together for a pledge made at a G20 summit in Rome to share 100 million doses to countries in need by the end of 2021. Denmark and Sweden each promised three million doses in donations from their stocks at the summit, while Germany, Italy, and France had already pledged higher amounts.

“Donations are desperately needed,” said von der Leyen, as she referred to the news that the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, is being forced to halt exports for the rest of the year.

According to the EU Commission chief, by the end of May around 46 per cent of the EU adult population will have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, putting the EU on the path towards herd immunity – classes as over 70 per cent of adults inoculated – by the end of July.

Von der Leyen said the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control should widen its monitoring system beyond the continent and incorporate the rest of the world in order to detect new strains and be “one step ahead”.

But while leaders hinted that EU assistance will likely veer towards Africa, it is Southeast Asia that some are now more concerned about.

Vaccination priority

As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc around the world last year, life in many parts of Southeast Asia remained somewhat normal for long periods. Not just in Vietnam but in the likes of Thailand too, temples were visited, traffic remained heavy, and karaoke bars were full. Around the time of the Lunar New Year, however, massive outbreaks have since forced Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos into ongoing lockdowns.

In Malaysia, daily infections per million people have even exceeded that of India, data compiled by Our World in Data showed just over a week ago. Last Tuesday Malaysia reported 205.1 cases per million people on a seven-day rolling basis, compared with India’s 150.4 cases.

The Malaysian government said it aims to vaccinate 80 per cent of the population by year-end, but only around 5 per cent have received at least one dose so far, the data showed.

Elsewhere, Laos recorded only 41 cases in 2020, all of whom recovered. Now, the total case count has reached around 1,900 as the country extended its national lockdown until June 4.

Before February, daily new COVID-19 infections in Cambodia barely ever surpassed 10 a day. On April 10 alone, the country registered 477 new cases. The government took action with a strict lockdown, including a law punishing violators of pandemic-prevention rules with up to 20 years in prison. But as tens of thousands of low-paid workers live in tiny apartments and shanties throughout the country, even in the capital of Phnom Penh, social distancing is deemed impossible.

For Cambodia and much of the region, therefore, experts said the only solution is mass vaccination. Cambodia itself has been proactive in administering vaccines, and nearly a quarter of its 10 million adults have received at least one dose, with 15 per cent fully vaccinated.

Thailand, its wealthier neighbour, is not so advanced in vaccine use. Only 2 per cent of its 69 million people have been fully vaccinated.

In Vietnam, although around one million people have received a first shot, only around 30,000 have received both.

While coronavirus cases are far lower than the peaks seen in other areas of the world, health experts said the outbreaks across Southeast Asia are a warning sign that vaccines must be distributed in a more even manner.

“It is entirely possible that because of the inequity that we are starting to see in accessing vaccines that the pandemic epicentre will shift,” said Teo Yik Ying, professor at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore.

Ying added that the recent outbreak in Singapore was not due to a lack of compliance with health measures, but was more likely because of the more aggressive nature of the virus variant first detected in India. “Our defences that we put in place that have worked very well for the past year now seem to have been breached by the coronavirus,” Ying said.

Enjoying freedom

Singapore has nevertheless vaccinated a quarter of its population, and therefore is a few steps ahead of others in the region in terms of getting back to normal. Indeed, despite the worrying spread of the Indian variant lurking throughout the likes of the United Kingdom, that particular island nation is still on track to open up fully in July as planned.

Around seven out of 10 adults in the UK have received their first vaccination shot, with most regions in Britain downgraded in terms of lockdown measures. Some parts of the country which have been in a near-constant lockdown state for over a year are rejoicing as bars and restaurants reopen, and people can go to the gym or the hairdresser.

England’s top football league, watched all over the world, also reopened for business with a limited numbers of fans finally allowed to watch their teams compete live in the last few weeks of the season.

Over the pond in the US, despite a disastrous pandemic response and nearly 600,000 deaths, the country is already opening up for wide-scale events. Fans swarmed the green at this month’s PGA golf championship in sheer delight at being allowed to enjoy live sport, and for several months now some UFC fighters have celebrated wins by jumping into the crowd and embracing everyone in sight.

For many countries, getting back to normal is imperative, even if some tough decisions will have to be made in the process. The next major sporting event on the calendar, which is still attracting controversy, is the Tokyo Olympics. Originally scheduled for last year, leaders are determined that the event will go ahead in July despite a pandemic emergency and polls showing that the majority of Japanese citizens want it to be cancelled.

Last week one of its main sponsors, newspaper Asahi Shimbun, called for the Olympics to be cancelled, while the US advised Americans not to travel to Japan anytime soon. The Japan Times in January cited Katsuhiro Miyamoto, an honorary professor at Kansai University, as saying that holding both the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics without spectators would result in an economic loss of around $22 billion for the country.

Simultaneously, a group of US experts called for “urgent action” to assess the COVID-19 risks associated with the games, and the additional measures that could be put in place to mitigate such risks. The researchers wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine last week that they recommend the World Health Organization “immediately convene an emergency committee” to advise on a risk-management approach for the Olympics.

The current plans to proceed with the event are “not informed by the best scientific evidence”, the researchers wrote.

Also last week, the Vietnam national football team travelled to the United Arab Emirates to prepare for two vital World Cup qualifiers in June. Players and staff, who have been vaccinated, nevertheless underwent a rigorous regime of testing on arrival in Dubai, and will still have to quarantine in Vietnam for 21 days on their return. The UAE is currently experiencing over 1,500 new cases per day, and has suffered over 1,600 deaths in total since the beginning of the pandemic.

By Quang Bao

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