It's time to face grim Covid-19 reality

It's time to face grim Covid-19 reality

This April 23 photo shows an empty Siam Square with the pandemic having shut down the economy. Nutthawat Wicheanbut
This April 23 photo shows an empty Siam Square with the pandemic having shut down the economy. Nutthawat Wicheanbut

At the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, there emerged an outbreak containment option called "Hurt and then ending" which in Thai is jeb tae jop. The complete lockdown of Wuhan was a prime example of that. In Thailand, the lockdown measure was first implemented in Buri Ram before it become a standard practice nationwide. The effectiveness of the measures varies across the globe -- from a seemingly complete success story in Wuhan to a not-yet sustained success in Spain, to a success and then failure in Singapore. I do not think anybody doubts the effectiveness of the lockdown on controlling the outbreak, but many, including myself, are starting to come out and question the cost of lockdown, which I have previously mentioned.

I was watching a programme on Japan Public Television (NHK World) and was surprised to hear that Japan's largest life assurance firm -- Nippon Life -- is concerned about the prolonged lockdown measure imposed by Shinzo Abe's government. According to its research, the current one-month lockdown due to end yesterday will cause 1 million people to become unemployed. Based on 30 years of statistics, there is almost a one-to-one relationship between unemployment and suicide. From that statistical relationship, I can calculate that 1 million more unemployed workers could mean an additional 10,000 suicide cases. Japan currently has about 500 Covid-19 deaths, but unemployment-induced deaths could be 20 times higher than that. Now you see why Nippon Life is concerned. The company has to pay for death claims regardless of the cause of death.

A one-month extension of the lockdown to May 31 has already been announced in Japan. According to the study, one million more people are expected to lose their jobs as a result -- meaning the lockdown will shed 2 million jobs. The title of the presentation, by the way, is "Not a choice between 'saving lives' and 'saving the economy'".

When you think about it, that really says it all.

It does not matter whether you support strong containment measures or if you prefer a more balanced approach. Either way, there are two indisputable facts to consider.

Fact one: a vaccine will not end the outbreak. It is every government's dream that the discovery of a Covid-19 vaccine will put an end to this, after which life and the economy can get back to normal. Recently, an €8 billion (280.2 billion baht) fund financed by 30 countries was set up to to develop a vaccine. This pooling tactic was implemented to accelerate the development of a vaccine and prevent a single lab or country controlling the supply. Right now, there are around 70 labs worldwide working around the clock to find a cure.

I have no doubt that a vaccine will be discovered soon, but I have strong doubts about production capability limits. There are already several promising developments in China and at Oxford University, with tests at the human-testing level. It does not matter which lab is the first to come out with a vaccine. The formula will be shared around the globe to quickly produce the vaccine for distribution.

Here is the real problem. The world population is 7.8 billion and, thus, we need 7.8 billion doses of vaccine. How fast can the labs produce it? Let's optimistically assume that every lab combined can turn out 1 million doses of vaccine a day. It would take 7,800 days to completely vaccinate the world population, which means the last person to get vaccinated will have to wait 21.4 years. Whoever that person is, I am afraid they might not live that long.

The first option is to boost production capabilities and facilities. Fine; hire 1,000 hand Buddhas to work there. But the production of vaccines will be limited by raw materials used in the manufacturing process like glass tubes. One million doses of vaccine need one million glass tubes and one million syringes for injection. Syringes are the most critical supply as the vaccine cannot be taken orally. I do recommend that my readers stock up on syringes. It could save your life and your friends' lives one day.

A more practical option is not to vaccinate the entire population. A limited (privileged) number of people will get to be vaccinated according to the availability of supply. To vaccinate only 1% of the population, we will need 78 million doses of vaccine. I do hope that all the labs can supply that amount in a year. Two questions. How does one choose privileged persons? And would it make any differences if only 1% of the population is "clean" while the remaining 99% are roaming around as potential carriers?

The issue of a vaccine is pointless as only a small number of people will be fortunate enough to be vaccinated. I am not going to bother discussing the cost issue. Those privileged few can surely pay whatever price you ask.

Fact 2: lockdowns are effective only for a limited time and limited territory. There are two issues here -- asymptomatic Covid-19 carriers are difficult to trace, and the outbreak is global. Even if a country shows low or zero numbers of infected patients, there are a large number of asymptomatic carriers walking around ready to transmit the virus.

According to the Mers outbreak statistics, about 29% of infected people show no symptoms. For Covid-19, studies of limited cases indicate about 18% to 50% of infected people are asymptomatic. Therefore, one can never really get rid of the virus, particularly after the reopening of borders.

When a vaccine, if available at all, is in limited supply and a resurgence of infections is certain, my recommendation is to live with the virus as we live with other infectious diseases.

Protect as many as we can without destroying economies and social lives. Once doctors and governments wake up from the dream vision of a virus-free world, it will be time to talk with economists on how to do damage control.

Chartchai Parasuk, PhD, is a freelance economist.

Chartchai Parasuk

Freelance economist

Chartchai Parasuk, PhD, is a freelance economist.

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