By The Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre)
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)
Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore
Evolving Approaches to “Health-Economic Crisis”
It has been close to two years since the COVID-19 pandemic caught the world’s economies in a hybrid “health-economic crisis”. Until early 2021, when vaccines were nowhere in sight in many countries, the only way to control the virus was through effective domestic and international lockdowns.
Today, as eight vaccines have already been approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) in more than 100 countries, the battle stage and policy debates have shifted. The race is now towards vaccinating a significant portion of country populations.
Given the “health-economic” nature of the pandemic, a country’s vaccine access means the ability to re-open economies, domestically and internationally. This provides economic security by reactivating previously dormant jobs in the services, food and entertainment industries, as well as in the international travel industries. For instance, Singapore which is practically “fully-vaxed” has been steadily opening vaccinated travel lanes with selected countries.
Vaccine Globalism or Nationalism?
A contentious issue today, however, is on vaccine access, in particular, “vaccine boosters” as individuals are given further vaccine doses even after full inoculation (two doses, in most cases).
The WHO opposes the widespread use of vaccine boosters until more of the world gets vaccinated, calling wealthier nations to prioritise getting vaccines to poorer countries where they are scarce. The economic argument is straightforward: the benefits of providing vaccines to poorer countries where a smaller share of the population has vaccine access, outweigh the benefits of further vaccines to wealthier countries where majority of medically eligible people are already vaccinated.
Yet, the pandemic’s continued evolution calls to question the very definition of “full inoculation”: is having two doses sufficient, or should booster shots be part of the “new normal” in facing an ever-changing pandemic? China, for instance, has been ahead of other countries in pandemic warfare; however, it is locking down yet again in 11 of its provinces amid a new wave of infections from a “delta variant” of the COVID-19 virus. Ultimately, should the target be a “zero-risk” scenario of pandemic-induced morbidity or mortality for any particular country, or should the world aim for a “tolerable risk” scenario, globally?
Building Back Together, or Apart?
A further debate today on how the global economy should respond to changing circumstances is on the type of “normal” that the world should aim for, with two competing views on this subject. The “Building Back Together” view sees the world economy as an integrated whole, including the less-developed countries which serve as sources for lower-cost food and other exports. This would argue that the goal is to return to the “pre-COVID” economy where these nations were included. Since the world is only as strong as is weakest link, this view argues for a pause to booster shots until there is a semblance of parity in vaccine access, globally.
In contrast, the “Building Back Apart” view is that there is no “old normal” to return to, making the “pre-COVID” economy a vestige of the past. Assuming that a world of facemasks, vaccines, unpredictable lockdowns, and cyclical bouts with COVID-19 is here to stay, the task would then be for industries and countries to adapt by shying away from high-contact service industries, and instead transforming the way these are provided to adapt to the “new normal”. “Good fences make good neighbours”, as the saying goes, such that each country should fend for itself first.
The optimal approach may lie somewhere in between these. Nonetheless, amid the ever-changing world realities, any viable economic strategy moving forward will need to be anchored on the unchanging priority of guaranteeing the well-being and economic security of peoples.