Vaccination Delays Put Global Rebound at Risk
Slipping timetables for inoculation campaigns mean return to normal could get pushed back for many countries
Slipping timetables for inoculation campaigns mean return to normal could get pushed back for many countries
Timetables for vaccinating enough people to effectively curb Covid-19 are slipping in many countries, raising fears that a large portion of the world will still be battling the pandemic and its economic effects well into 2022 or beyond.
While the U.S. and some other mostly small countries are making progress toward vaccinating most of their populations by late summer, health experts and economists are concluding that much of the planet—including parts of Europe, Asia and Latin America—face a longer slog.
Places from Germany to Mexico are running into serious problems sourcing sufficient vaccines. Other countries with low caseloads are less pressed to start vaccination campaigns and aren’t eager to reopen borders anytime soon.
At the current rates of vaccination, only about 10% of the world would be inoculated by the end of the year and 21% by the close of 2022, UBS says. Just 10 countries are on track to vaccinate more than one-third of their population this year.
The UBS data includes hard-hit middle-income countries such as South Africa where vaccination rates are expected to be painfully slow, though some countries it measured are expected to increase the pace of vaccinations soon.
But richer regions such as Europe are also facing delays. European officials in recent days watched as their goal of vaccinating 70% of the population by summer looked unachievable after doses ran out in some places, with just 2% of European Union residents covered so far.
The differing pace in vaccine rollouts world-wide raises the prospect of divergent economic fortunes for the world’s main economic blocs, at least in the near term. The U.S. economy could grow by 5.1% this year, according to International Monetary Fund forecasts, but recoveries of the eurozone and developing economies have become more uncertain given vaccination delays.
The U.S. and a few other countries could wind up enjoying many benefits of herd immunity but still be unable to fully mend their economies because they are waiting on other places to catch up. With borders shut globally, some businesses even in vaccinated countries would have to rely on domestic demand.
“So long as the pandemic terrorizes part of the world, normality will not be restored anywhere,” said Erik Nielsen, chief economist at UniCredit Bank.
Uneven vaccine distribution also means that Covid-19 could keep circulating for years, especially in nations such as Brazil and South Africa, where new infections are vastly outpacing inoculations. Both have become breeding grounds for more infectious new strains. In time, virologists expect the virus could mutate—in particular, modifying the shape of its outer protein spikes—an outcome they fear might ultimately render our current vaccines less effective.
Many scientists and policy makers predicted immunization programs would take a long time. Still, the unusually rapid development of vaccines raised hopes that 2021 would mark a return to normal for most of the world. Economists began upgrading their forecasts.
Global growth is still expected to be strong this year, and residents of many countries including the U.S. will undoubtedly see restaurants filling up and other signs of progress. The recovery is already so strong in some places that supplies of semiconductors are running short.
The U.S. and U.K. also experienced some early delays rolling out vaccine campaigns, only to see distribution pick up as snags were worked out.
Still, the outlook is growing considerably more uncertain elsewhere.
Borders are closing across much of Europe. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last week the country would continue to bar international visitors through most of 2021. A senior Australian health official recently made a similar prediction, in part because it isn’t clear whether Covid-19 vaccines prevent transmission of the virus or just stop people from getting severely ill.
Even the world’s fastest-vaccinating country—Israel—remains in a lockdown, with international flights banned indefinitely.
“This assumption that when Jan. 1 came we could just burn the old calendar and everything would be fine is proving to be a wildly optimistic view,” said Robert Carnell, an ING Group economist in Singapore.
The World Bank has forecast that remittances to the developing world—a vital lifeline—will fall 7.5% this year, after a 7% drop in 2020. Concert halls and schools might remain closed longer than expected.
Hotels in places such as Southeast Asia and the Pacific aren’t expecting business to fully rebound until the middle of next year. Many international students could be absent from university campuses until mid-2022.
“I’ve just been on the phone this morning to some lovely American clients,” said Mark Fraenkel, who owns Blue Dive Port Douglas, a scuba-diving business near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. “I said, ‘Let’s not book you for 2021. We’ll just have to cancel.’ ”
Shippers, including DHL, are expecting air freight to get tighter for the first part of this year, not better, because fewer planes are flying to carry cargo. Discussions at the United Nations to normalize air traffic by creating a vaccine passport or even a common set of rules for tests are snagged in U.N. bureaucracy.
Intercontinental flight traffic won’t return to 2019 levels until 2023 at the earliest, the International Air Transport Association forecasts.
“We’re talking about years rather than months, and it’s partly related to the two-speed vaccination,” said Senior IATA Vice President Nick Careen. “We need governments to agree on a process; we can’t continue to operate like this.”
A central problem is that it is proving hard to scale up vaccine production quickly. Delayed deliveries can have domino effects on other buyers.
In Europe, where several top vaccines are made, production issues emerged last month with factories saying they couldn’t keep up. Frustrated, the EU introduced new measures on Friday that would let it block exports to wealthier countries, such as Canada, Japan or the U.S.
Slow production at a Belgian plant has meant Canadian officials recently received 70% fewer doses of a Pfizer vaccine. The same troubles have left Japan struggling to get doses it needs to vaccinate its population by the end of June, a crunch that may mean few fans for Tokyo’s Summer Olympics in July.
“I can’t tell you which month,” said Taro Kono, the minister in charge of Japan’s vaccine rollout, when asked when the general public could get immunized.
China also faces challenges. Although it has started inoculations using homegrown vaccines, without providing a firm timeline for reaching herd immunity, approvals and production arrangements have come more slowly than anticipated, according to Trivium China, a consultancy.
In one sign of the difficulties, the Beijing government’s talent office said that vaccine producer Sinovac is struggling to hire new staff.
“The main issue is production volume,” said Guo Wei, deputy secretary general of the health-care logistics association at the government-backed China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing, in an interview. He said that based on production estimates by China’s vaccine makers, the country wouldn’t be able to reach herd immunity this year.
Trivium estimates that a total of 850 million doses is the high end of what is possible for China this year, while administering at least 1.68 billion doses would be considered full inoculation. The Economist Intelligence Unit doesn’t rule out some major Chinese cities reaching herd immunity this year but estimates that the country as a whole likely won’t be able to reach it until late 2022.
Any production delays in China could affect other countries. Morocco planned to vaccinate 80% of its population in the coming months, in part using Chinese vaccines, but officials say they haven’t received all the supplies they need and have blamed manufacturers that can’t keep up.
Analysts doubt other countries can reach their stated targets. In Indonesia, officials want to vaccinate 65% of a population of 270 million in 15 months, which would more likely take three to four years, according to analysts at IMA Asia. The Philippines aims to vaccinate 70 million people this year.
“We doubt if half the 2021 goal can be reached,” IMA Asia said in a recent report.
Latin America’s two largest countries, Brazil and Mexico, have so far immunized just 0.8% and 0.5% of their populations, respectively. Argentina planned to receive five million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine in January, but only 800,000 have been delivered because of production delays in Russia.
Nigeria’s 206 million people have only one delivery scheduled, of 100,000 doses, expected next month.
Meanwhile, more people are putting plans on hold.
Mohammed Waqas, a 25-year-old in London, initially aimed to start a master’s program in teaching at an Australian university in February. Mr Waqas decided to defer enrollment until at least July because Australia’s border is closed to most international visitors. If the border isn’t open by July, he could defer until 2022.
“I’m one year behind where I would like to be,” Mr Waqas said.
—Chao Deng, Peter Landers and Samantha Pearson contributed to this article.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
As geopolitical tensions rise, Taiwan is shifting its economy to rely more on the U.S. and other countries but at a cost
TAIPEI—For years, Beijing hoped to win control of Taiwan by convincing its people their economic futures were inextricably tied to China.
Instead, more Taiwanese businesses are pivoting to the U.S. and other markets, reducing the island democracy’s dependence on China and angering Beijing as it sees its economic leverage over Taiwan ebb.
In one sign of the shift, the U.S. replaced mainland China as the top buyer of Taiwanese agricultural products for the first time last year.
Electronics firms such as chip maker Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. are also selling more goods to American and other non-Chinese buyers, thanks in part to Washington’s chip restrictions and Apple’s bets on Taiwanese chips.
Overall, Taiwanese exports to the U.S. in the first 10 months of 2023 were more than 80% higher than in the same period of 2018, Taiwanese government data shows. Taiwanese exports to the mainland were 1% lower—a major change from a decade or so ago when China’s and Taiwan’s economies were rapidly integrating.
Taiwan’s outbound investment has also shifted. After flowing mostly to mainland China in the early 2000s, it has now moved decisively toward other destinations, including Southeast Asia, India and the U.S.
Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn, which assembles iPhones in mainland China, is expanding in India and Vietnam after Apple began pushing its suppliers to diversify.
Chinese state media recently reported that China had opened tax and land-use probes into Foxconn. Though Taiwanese officials and analysts interpreted the probes as a sign that China wants Foxconn founder Terry Gou to drop plans to run in Taiwan’s presidential election in January, some have said Beijing may also be trying to pressure Foxconn into resisting decoupling with China.
“Any attempt to ‘talk down’ the mainland’s economy or to seek ‘decoupling’ is driven by ulterior motives and will be futile,” said a spokeswoman for Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office in September. “The mainland is always the best choice for Taiwanese compatriots and businesses.”
Fully decoupling from mainland China’s economy likely isn’t possible, and would be disastrous for Taiwan, not to mention China, even if it were.
Foxconn and other major Taiwanese companies depend heavily on China for parts, testing and buyers. Some 25% of Taiwan’s electronic-parts imports still come from the mainland.
If China’s weakened economy returns to strong growth, it could shift the calculus back in favor of the mainland, where the Communist Party claims Taiwan despite never having ruled it. About 21% of Taiwan’s total goods trade this year has been with mainland China, versus 14% for the U.S., though the U.S. share has risen from 11% in 2018.
“My hunch is that the large manufacturing sectors will try to stay in the Chinese market, even with harsh conditions,” said Alexander Huang, director of the international affairs department of the opposition Kuomintang Party, whose supporters include business people with mainland ties. “If you talk to those business owners, they say, ‘Nah, no way will I give it to my competitors.’”
Even so, many forces are pushing Taiwan to rewire its economic relationship with China.
Trump-era tariffs and Biden administration export controls have raised the cost of sourcing from China, and in some cases prohibited it. U.S. firms are pushing their Taiwanese suppliers to diversify sourcing, and rising wages in China have made it less attractive than before.
Long-running shifts in Taiwanese sentiment toward China—and China’s own efforts to punish the island using its economic leverage—are also factors. China has banned Taiwanese agricultural products such as pineapple and, in 2022, grouper fish, and restricted outbound tourism to Taiwan.
Those restrictions to some degree have backfired, pushing Taiwanese businesses to look elsewhere.
Chang Chia-sheng, who runs a fish farming operation in Taiwan, said his main export target a decade ago was mainland China. But as geopolitical tensions climbed, he looked elsewhere. Sales to Americans have jumped fivefold since 2018, he said. “In the U.S., things just seem to work out more easily,” Chang said.
The U.S. and Taiwan reached an agreement in May on a number of trade and investment measures to deepen ties, though the deal stopped short of reducing tariffs.
In the June quarter of 2023, 63% of revenue at TSMC, which makes most of the world’s most cutting-edge logic chips, came from the U.S., up from 54% in the same period in 2018, according to S&P Global data. Just 12% of TSMC’s revenue now comes from Chinese buyers, down from 22% in the second quarter of 2018.
Taiwan’s government is also encouraging closer economic links with Southeast Asia, South Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Its “New Southbound Policy,” rolled out in 2016, has been the subject of fierce debate in Taiwan, with the Kuomintang Party saying steps to boost relations—like handing out scholarships—aren’t worth the cost.
Exports to “New Southbound” partners have risen, however, to $66 billion in the first nine months of 2023, about 50% higher than the same period in 2016.
“Frankly speaking, we’re responding reactively” to the need for more diverse trading partners, Taiwan’s Economic Minister Wang Mei-hua said. “Taiwan needs to manage the risks on its own, but we also need our allies to join us more in mitigating these risks.”
Together, the U.S. and the six largest Southeast Asian economies accounted for 36% of Taiwanese exports in the third quarter of 2023, according to data from CEIC, surpassing the percentage sent to mainland China and Hong Kong on a quarterly basis for the first time since 2002.
In September, Taiwan sent less than 21% of its exports to the mainland, the lowest percentage since the global financial crisis.
Taiwanese foreign investment into mainland China, steady at around $10 billion a year for most of the early 2010s, plummeted in late 2018 and has since been running at about half that level, according to Taiwanese government data. In 2023 so far, just 13% of Taiwan’s investment went to mainland China; 25% went to other Asian locations, and nearly half went to the U.S.
A survey of Taiwanese businesses conducted last year on behalf of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, found that nearly 60% had moved or were considering moving some production or sourcing out of China—a significantly higher rate than European or American firms.
Jay Yen, chief executive of Yen and Brothers, a Taiwanese frozen-food processing company, said his firm received a government subsidy of around $75,000 to market his products to American consumers. China now only accounts for about 3% of its revenue, he said.
That said, “if you really have to consider the risks of a war between the U.S. and China and its potential impact on Taiwan, you might want to place your bets on a third country—neither China nor the U.S.,” Yen added.
After China began to open up its economy in the late 1970s, Taiwanese businesses were among the first investors.
By the 2000s, China seemed to be succeeding in its strategy of integrating the two economies, with more than 28% of Taiwan’s exports going to the mainland in 2010, from less than 4% a decade earlier.
Direct flights between the two sides were normalised for the first time in decades. Mainland tourists were allowed to visit Taiwan on their own.
By 2014, the tide was turning as more Taiwanese grew worried about over dependence on China. Student demonstrators protested against a trade pact, later abandoned, that would have deepened ties with China. President Tsai Ing-wen, who took office in 2016, has pushed to diversify Taiwan’s economy.
China has responded by moving trade issues more into the spotlight.
In April, it opened an investigation into Taiwanese trade restrictions that it says limit exports of more than 2,400 items from the mainland to the island in violation of World Trade Organization rules. In October, China’s Ministry of Commerce announced the probe would be extended until Jan. 12—the day before Taiwan’s coming election.
Taiwan’s government has called the probe politically motivated.
Chinese officials have implied that Beijing could suspend preferential tariff rates for some Taiwanese goods in China under a 2010 deal signed when Kuomintang’s Ma Ying-jeou was president. Beijing has also reacted angrily to Taiwan’s recent trade agreement with the U.S.
For Taiwanese companies, building and operating new factories in places other than China isn’t cheap or easy. Protests have at times disrupted operations at Indian plants operated by Foxconn and Wistron, another Apple supplier. In September, a fire halted production at a Taiwanese facility in Tamil Nadu.
Still, some Taiwanese businesspeople have clearly soured on China.
“The electronics industry has already become a Chinese empire, not a Taiwanese one,” says Leo Chiu, who worked in mainland China in quality control for an electronics manufacturer for 14 years before concluding he couldn’t move up further there and returning to Taiwan in 2019. Many of his old colleagues have left, he said.
“If Xi Jinping steps down, there’s still a chance it could change,” says Chiu. “But I think it’s very hard.”
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’