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One Year On: Vaccines, New Variants and Economic Prospects

26 Feb One Year On: Vaccines, New Variants and Economic Prospects

It has now been over a year since COVID-19 was first recognised as a global pandemic. While vaccination programmes are now beginning, there has been much debate about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, especially with new variants of the virus emerging, and it is not yet clear how long it will take for the global economy to recover from this crisis.

The Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) held the webinar, “One Year On:  Vaccines, New Variants and Economic Prospects”, with Dr. Tikki Pangestu, Visiting Professor, Yong Yoo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore, former Director of Research Policy and Cooperation, World Health Organization, and Dr. Taimur Baig, Managing Director and Chief Economist, DBS Bank, on 23 February 2021, to examine current public health and economic issues, as well as exploring the outlook for the months ahead. The session was moderated by Associate Professor Simon Tay, Chairman, SIIA.

Here are some highlights from the discussion. Video excerpts from the webinar will be posted on social media, with a full recording available as premium content for the SIIA Roundtable and Corporate Members.

Addressing Vaccine Nationalism and Inequality

Globally, some 200 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered worldwide. But 45 per cent of the doses administered so far have been in developed countries. Most countries in the world have yet to receive a single shot of any vaccine. There are therefore problems with unequal access to vaccines, partially due to production limitations, but also ‘vaccine nationalism’. Some countries are allegedly keeping stocks in excess of what they need.

China has been pushing to export its Sinovac vaccine to other countries, a move that has raised questions about the efficacy of the vaccine and whether China may be leveraging vaccines for soft power. However, Dr. Pangestu noted that in light of global vaccine shortages, the world needs all the vaccines it can get, and China’s efforts will save lives.

“The perception that Chinese vaccines are not as good as those from the West… is completely misplaced,” Dr. Pangestu said.

New Variants: Should We Worry?

Responding to the concern surrounding new COVID-19 strains, Dr. Pangestu acknowledged that current vaccines are slightly less effective against the South African and Brazilian variants. But he clarified that current vaccines will still protect against hospitalisation, severe illness, and death, even when faced with these new strains. Additionally, companies are already developing boosters or additional doses that cover new variants, and will be able to adapt their vaccines within weeks.

Vaccine Hesitancy

Dr. Pangestu observed that perhaps the biggest challenge to vaccine rollouts is the sense of hesitancy that many have about vaccines, especially as there is a great deal of misinformation circulating on social media. He noted that several countries are considering making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory, though this raises difficult legal and moral questions.

Duration of Crisis

According to recent estimates by Bloomberg, it will take up to seven years before 75 per cent of the world’s population is vaccinated, unless the rate of vaccine deployment improves.

Unfortunately, it is not yet clear how long the protection granted by COVID-19 vaccines will last. Dr. Baig highlighted that if vaccines are only found to give a few months of protection, such as seven to eight months, this has profound implications. People may need to go back on a regular basis for new shots, and life may never fully return to how things were before the pandemic.

State of Recovery and Market Distortions

Markets have been bullish over the past few weeks, but Dr. Baig cautioned that the global economy has not yet recovered. “The rebound we are seeing now does not equate to recovery. We are nowhere close to going back to trend.”

Dr. Baig added that “there are some truly bizarre things happening in global markets that will have spillover effects into our day to day lives”, such as the gamification of trading by social media users, the current surge in special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) deals, soaring cryptocurrency values, and stretched valuations. Some of these spikes in volatility are due to the easy money policies of the last decade, which have been turbocharged over the past few months due to stimulus packages and low interest rates. But there is “no free lunch”, and Dr. Baig warned that these distortions in financial markets “may come back to bite us”.

Trade and China as a Driver of Growth

Turning from finance to trade, there has been a persistent narrative that there may be a large wave of diversification out of China, with businesses moving manufacturing into other Asian economies due to the US-China trade war, rising labour costs in China, and the need to restructure supply chains amidst the pandemic. However, in reality, no mass exodus has transpired. Some production has moved, but only in low-end manufacturing. Dr. Baig said China will remain the “manufacturer of the world” for the foreseeable future.

China’s continued growth will benefit Southeast Asian economies. The conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) at the end of 2020, which connects China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand with the ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, will help to boost trade and counteract trends towards deglobalisation. China and the United Kingdom have also expressed interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), another multilateral trade deal that Singapore is part of.

Singapore’s Economic Responses

Commenting on Singapore’s Budget 2021, which was recently announced, Dr. Baig noted that the deficit has come down significantly since last year, and some support measures are being weaned off. While some in Singapore have called for more help to be extended to vulnerable workers and businesses, Dr. Baig said the Budget 2021 measures should be sufficient if Singapore’s economy sees stronger recovery in the second half of the year, which is probable.

Outlook for 2021

Although many are hoping that Singapore and other countries will ease travel restrictions in the coming months, Dr. Pangestu pointed out that thus far, such reopening efforts have been stymied by new surges in COVID-19 cases. He was not optimistic about travel resuming in the near term.

That said, even if borders remain closed to travellers, trade and other business activity will begin to drive economic recovery. Both speakers agreed there is a good likelihood that vaccination numbers will improve in the latter half of 2021, with a corresponding positive impact on the economy. “There may be a light at the end of the tunnel,” Dr. Pangestu concluded.