Greetings from Singapore, where it is finally possible to begin to envisage how “living with Covid” might not be so different from living with the flu. Unfortunately, one doesn’t have to fly very far to realise just how far most of east Asia still is from such an improved state, making any resumption of pre-pandemic travel norms extremely unlikely this year.
The divergence was highlighted late last month by two contrasting news items, which this week’s Asia briefing from Trade Secrets will explore.
On June 24, Singapore’s ministers for trade, finance and health published a joint op-ed article in which they said that while Covid-19 “may never go away”, it would soon be possible to “live normally with it in our midst”.
Two days later, Chinese health authorities unveiled plans for a huge quarantine centre to house international arrivals in the southern city of Guangzhou — an admission that they see no such future for China in the near-term and are likely to keep the country effectively sealed off from the rest of the world at least through the spring of 2022.
It is depressing to think that two great commercial centres such as Singapore and Guangzhou, separated by just a four-hour flight, may not see normal passenger traffic volumes begin to recover for another year if not longer.
Charted waters, however, suggests that may not matter too much from a merchandise trade perspective. Regional trade flows remain robust. Many people used to think it was important to commute to and from the office five days a week — until Covid taught them it was not. The same is true, it appears, for pre-pandemic business travel as well.
As in most east Asian countries that have taken Covid seriously since the start, public morale in Singapore has risen and fallen in tandem with the number of “community” cases, as opposed to “imported” ones brought in by international travellers. The more community cases, the more likely the government was to restrict public activities and — in the worst-case scenario for most parents — close schools.
But in their recent article in the Straits Times newspaper, the three Singapore ministers said the government would soon be able to dispense with such counts altogether and instead simply monitor Covid-related hospitalisations and deaths, as many countries do for the flu. In the severe US flu season of 2017-18, they noted, there were between 13 and 14 daily hospitalisations and one death per 2m people.
The goal is to render Covid similarly harmless even as it inevitably becomes endemic. At that point, said Dale Fisher, an infectious diseases specialist at Singapore’s National University Hospital, “stating the number of cases on a daily bases won’t matter”. It would be like announcing, he added, that “one thousand people were diagnosed today with the common cold”.
The key to achieving this relatively quickly will be high take-up rates of highly effective vaccines, such as the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna jabs most commonly administered in Singapore.
By early August, more than 60 per cent of Singapore’s 5.7m people should be fully vaccinated. That will put the city-state where Israel and some US states, such as Massachusetts, are now. Israel and Massachusetts have both vaccinated 60 per cent of their citizens with the best vaccines available. In Israel, there are just three daily Covid hospitalisations and one death per million vaccinated individuals.
Like Singapore, China’s vaccination campaign is also accelerating admirably, with about 1.3bn doses administered so far. The problem is that in various developing world clinical trials, its homegrown vaccines have only been 51 to 67 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infections. Anecdotal evidence also suggests they are even less effective against the Delta variant first discovered in India.
“Singapore’s strategy might not work in countries that rely on Chinese vaccines,” said Ryan Ho, a researcher at the East Asian Institute in Singapore. “China had such impressive [containment] results because of the decisive and harsh measures that the central government took.”
Indeed, the Singapore government — as well as the city’s Catholic churches — have said they will exempt people vaccinated with the Pfizer and Moderna jabs from having to take Covid tests before participating in large gatherings, but not those who had received Chinese vaccines.
Unlike Singapore government and church officials, Beijing health authorities of course cannot speak so freely about the relative underperformance of Chinese vaccines. That is why the June 24 comments by Zhong Nanshan, the Chinese epidemiologist, about Guangzhou’s new quarantine facility were so revealing.
According to Zhong, Chinese officials are concerned the hotels at present used to quarantine returning nationals and residents cannot contain the Delta variant. Hence the need for the only-in-China scale of the new Guangzhou facility, which Zhong said would cover more than 250,000 square metres — or 46 football fields — and handle almost all international travellers entering China.
If China’s vaccines were as effective as those of Pfizer and Moderna, it too could envision the near-future scenario outlined by Singapore’s ministers. Instead, it is moving in the opposite direction, ensuring that passenger flows to China will not recover anytime soon. The same is true for most other south-east Asian nations, from Indonesia to the Philippines, that are also dependent on Chinese vaccines.
Singapore’s ministers said it should not be long before “we will be able to travel again — at least to countries that have also controlled the virus and turned it into an endemic norm”. China has managed the former but the latter remains a distant prospect. Other south-east Asian countries have achieved neither. So when Singaporeans finally start travelling en masse, they are more likely to fly over their regional neighbours to far-flung tourist destinations such as Jerusalem and Boston.
Is the widening gap in case rates between Asian countries making a difference to trade flows? Not yet. The charts below show that most economies in the region enjoyed a strong start to 2021.
Will the boom last even in countries with less effective vaccines? One would expect that, as cases rise in parts of the region, we will begin to see supply chain disruptions. Outbreaks in Shenzhen beginning in May have already led to severe delays at the port. Cases have also shut some of the facilities involved in the manufacturing of semiconductors in Taiwan. Compared with elsewhere in the world, numbers are still low, however, and whether the impact of the disruptions will show up on a macro level remains to be seen. Claire Jones
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