Vaccination Delays Put Global Rebound at Risk
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Vaccination Delays Put Global Rebound at Risk

Slipping timetables for inoculation campaigns mean return to normal could get pushed back for many countries

By Drew Hinshaw & Mike Cherney
Mon, Feb 1, 2021 2:56amGrey Clock 5 min

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.



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The Loneliness of the American Worker

More meetings and faceless chats. Fewer work friends. How the modern workday is fueling an epidemic of isolation.

By TE-PING CHEN
Wed, May 29, 2024 6 min

More Americans are profoundly lonely, and the way they work—more digitally linked but less personally connected—is deepening that sense of isolation.

Nick Skarda , 29 years old, works two jobs in logistics and office administration in San Diego to keep up with his bills. After a couple of years at the logistics job, he has one friend there. He says hi to co-workers at his office job but doesn’t really know any.

“I feel sort of an emptiness or lack of belonging,” he says. Juggling two jobs leaves Skarda exhausted, with little energy or time to grab drinks with co-workers . “It makes it harder to go in and give it your all if you don’t feel like anyone is there rooting for you,” he adds.

Employers and researchers are just beginning to understand how workplace shifts over the past four years are contributing to what the U.S. surgeon general declared a loneliness health epidemic last year. The alienation affects remote and in-person workers alike. Among 1-800-Flowers.com ’s 5,000 hybrid and fully on-site employees, for instance, the most popular community chat group offered by a company mental-health provider is simply called “Loneliness.”

Consider these phenomena of modern work:

It is a marked shift from even a decade ago, when bonds fostered at work helped compensate for declining participation in church , community groups and other social institutions. As the American workday becomes more faceless and scheduled , the number of U.S. adults who call themselves lonely has climbed to 58% from 46% in 2018, according to a recent Cigna poll of 10,000 Americans.

The faceless workday

The disconnection is driving up staff turnover and worker absences, making it a business issue for more employers, executives and researchers say. Cigna, the health-insurance company, estimates that loneliness is costing companies $154 billion a year in absenteeism alone.

“Work is social, it’s a lot more than a paycheck,” says James McCann , founder and chairman of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Earlier this year, 1-800-Flowers.com moved from three days in the office to four to boost a sense of connectivity among workers. It has also begun tapping workers across teams to serve as designated hosts during lunchtime, encouraging people to sit with colleagues they don’t know in common areas and chat, and suggesting conversation topics.

While today’s workers have more ways to connect than ever, “there are only so many memes and jokes you can send over Slack,” says Maëlle Gavet , chief executive of Techstars, a pre-seed fund that has invested in 4,100 startups. “We tend to have more and more people with back-to-back calendars, more meetings and less connections.”

Gavet says that is especially the case for hybrid workers on in-office days, which they tend to use to dash from one meeting to the next.

Paradoxically, meetings can make people feel lonelier—and even more so if the meetings are virtual, behavioural researchers say. A 2023 survey by employee experience and analytics company Perceptyx found people who described themselves as “very lonely” tended to have heavier meeting loads than less-lonely staffers. More than 40% of those people spent more than half their work hours in meetings.

In Cincinnati, Kelly Roehm says she came to chafe at the meetings—sometimes as many as 12—consuming her day after joining a consulting company in 2021. She would often feel her eyes glazing over as she multitasked on other screens.

“It’s like you’re a zombie, there but not there,” says Roehm, who lived 10 minutes from the office but worked mostly remotely because she says few colleagues typically came in. It is a more common setup as companies distribute teams across more locations: At Microsoft , 27% of the company’s teams all worked in the same location last year, compared with 61% in 2019.

She compares that experience with her time more than a decade ago at a company now owned by AstraZeneca . There, she enjoyed lots of social outlets at work: a Weight Watchers group and a lunchtime crochet club.

“Now if I were to think about asking, ‘Hey, do you want to participate in something like this,’ it would just sound weird,” says Roehm, who left this year to focus on her own career-consulting business. “There wasn’t that emotional attachment that made it difficult to say, it’s time to move on.”

The power of small talk

Office chitchat, sometimes an unwanted distraction, seems to provide more benefits than many people realise, says Jessica Methot , an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies social ties at work.

In a study of 100 employees at different workplaces, Methot and fellow researchers surveyed participants at points throughout the day. They found those who had engaged in small talk reported less stress and more positivity toward co-workers.

Even exchanging pleasantries with a co-worker you barely know can help, says Sarah Wright , an associate professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who studies worker loneliness.

“We used to think loneliness has to be overcome by developing meaningful relationships and having that degree of intimacy,” Wright says. “More and more, though, we’re seeing it’s these day-to-day weak ties and frequency of [interactions] with people that matters.”

Such interactions are substantially harder to replicate in a virtual environment. “The default now is, I have to schedule time with you, even if it’s five minutes, instead of just picking up the phone,” says Katie Tyson , president of Hive Brands, an online food retailer founded in 2020 as a fully remote company.

The frictions add up, she says. Last fall, the company added an office in New York where employees voluntarily gather a couple of times a week to foster more cohesion.

Coming to the office, even on a hybrid basis, tends to yield a roughly 20% to 30% boost in serendipitous connections, according to Syndezo, which analysed survey data and email and messaging traffic from more than two dozen large companies.

Yet there are diminishing returns to time in person, says Philip Arkcoll , founder of Worklytics, which analyses workforce data for Fortune 500 companies. Coming in once a month provides a significant boost in ties; two or three times a month adds a little more, Worklytics data show. Once or twice a week results in a smaller increase, though, and working in-person four or five days a week makes almost no difference.

A business priority

Ernst & Young has asked managers to use the first five minutes of team calls to engage in conversation “as real human beings,” says Frank Giampietro , whose title, chief well-being officer for the Americas, was created in 2021 to help support employees during the pandemic.

The professional-services firm is also training employees to spot and reach out to co-workers struggling with issues such as isolation. To date, more than 1,600 employees have taken the training.

One challenge is that American workers have sacrificed connection for productivity, says Julie Rice , co-founder of fitness chain SoulCycle. These days, with more business contacts preferring video calls, she finds breakfast meetings and coffee dates on her calendar have been replaced with Zoom. Though efficient, such video calls are less likely to yield conversations that can turn into useful professional connections or lasting friendships, she says.

Julie Rice says that her work schedule, once packed with coffees and in-person meetups, is now an avalanche of Zooms. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER GREGORY-RIVERA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Even people I’m meeting with here in New York, we’ll just Zoom,” she says.

Last year, Rice co-founded Peoplehood, a company that runs “gathers” to improve connectivity and relationship skills, and employers are signing up. One, a beauty-services business with hundreds of field employees who never see each other, asked Peoplehood to host a series of gatherings for workers to meet and share job advice. Another, a marketing company with far-flung employees, requested help after surveys showed staff wanted to feel more connected.

“Whatever relationships we had pre-Covid have sort of run out of gas,” Rice says.

Good luck prodding employees to socialise, though. Nearly all the 150-odd staff at the Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters of Shaklee, the nutrition-supplements company, used to attend annual Earth Day gatherings, which involved community service, lunch and breaking early for the day, says Jonathan Ramot , the company’s North American human-resources director. Office happy hours, bowling outings and “mix and mingles” were also robustly attended.

Now that the workforce has gone remote, last year’s Earth Day event attracted 20 staffers, even though most workers live nearby.

“We have a lot of people asking for in-person events, but when we plan them, they don’t show up,” Ramot says. “Then they complain they’re lonely.”

This past April, Shaklee instead held a mandatory get-together with the chief executive, who had relocated to Florida during the pandemic and was in town. About 100 employees gathered at a brewery for food, drinks and conversation—and no speeches from the bosses.

There was a buzz in the air, Ramot says, as staff hugged and delighted in seeing each other, some for the first time. “People were saying, I miss this,” he says.

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