Time to accept we can't beat Covid-19
published : 8 Jul 2021 at 04:00
newspaper section: Oped
If the government does not wish to see a collapse of society, it must rethink its Covid-19 strategy. First, it must admit that the Covid-19 outbreak is not controllable after the outbreak has changed from the cluster level (individual based) to the community level (activity based).
At the onset, one can usually identify "patient zero", that is individuals and their close contacts, called a cluster. To control the spread of the virus, one simply controls clusters like Thailand did in the first and second rounds of the outbreak. The impact of outbreak control on the economy was minimal as individuals produce little economic value.
But when the virus spread into communities where no patient zero can be identified and isolated, shutting down communities (businesses) like construction sites, markets, and restaurants has profound effects on the economy because communities produce substantial economic value. There is an estimate showing that prohibiting in-restaurant dining is costing the economy 1 billion baht per day.
One local example is Malaysia, which has imposed four rounds of national lockdown, known locally as MCO (movement control order). So far, they have not been able to curb the spread of the disease.
Each time an MCO order is eased, a new round of outbreak occurs. It is estimated that each day of lockdown costs the Malaysian economy 1 billion ringgit (about 7.7 billion baht). Because of the current lockdown, the World Bank lowered Malaysia's economic growth forecast for this year from 6% to 4.5%.
Even with such economic sacrifices, the outbreak is not easing enough and a two-week curfew, which started on July 3, was imposed in the richest state of Selangor and the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Could you imagine the impacts of the curfew on the already difficult economy? Many Malaysians are now begging for help by hanging white flags in front of their houses.
An often-cited successful case of lockdown is Wuhan, China which has been used as a model for the rest of the world. However, in my opinion, the lockdown of Wuhan was successful only because the city is relatively small in terms of population and economic importance.
If the outbreak occurred in Beijing or Shanghai, Chinese authorities would have had the most difficult time controlling both movements of people and accepting economic losses. In Thailand, this is equivalent to the Samut Sakhon outbreak. It was not a difficult decision to seal off a small city while letting the rest of the country run business as usual.
A few years from now scholars and critics might find out that nation-wide lockdowns and specific activity lockdowns, such as bans on indoor dining or closing down construction sites were not only ineffective measures but also unreasonably costly. A case in point is Thailand. On May 18, the government restricted in-restaurant dining to 25% of a restaurant's seating capacity hoping that it would lower daily infection rates. On the contrary, daily infection cases rose from 3,500 per day to 5,000 per day.
Instead of re-examining the strategy, the government opted for a stricter measure of zero dining-in. The results? Daily infection cases rose further to 6,000 per day and, along the way, killed thousands of eatery establishments. Nice work?
Some countries are wakening up to the concept of "If you can't beat them, join them" by admitting the fact that Covid-19 will be with us forever. Instead of trying to aim for zero transmission by sacrificing human happiness -- not being able to breathe freely, no eating out, no kids playing outside, no jobs, ruined businesses, a high government deficit, and so on -- why not learn to accept the transmission rate, whatever that may be, and prevent whatever necessary such as serious hospital treatments and casualties. Would it be foolish trying to stop the rain? Why not give out umbrellas and build a better drainage system for the city?
The country I am talking about is Singapore which is now launching the "Test, Trace, Vaccinate" campaign. With the campaign, the Singapore government hopes that "normal life" can resume, even with the invasion of the Delta variant. The UK is about to do a similar thing.
The country will reopen most economic activities on July 19 -- dubbed Freedom Day, after it was postponed from June 21. Conservatives say the UK move is too much of a gamble as numbers of infections are approaching 30,000 per day. Despite the high number of new cases, just nine deaths from Covid-19 were reported on July 5.
Both countries can afford to take such a bold step because of high vaccination rates which can prevent major hospitalisations and deaths. In Singapore, 67.2% of its population has received at least one dose of vaccine and 37.8% completed two doses. The corresponding numbers in the UK are 67.9% and 50.4%. However, it is not only the vaccination rates that matter. It is also the ability of vaccines to prevent serious hospitalisations and deaths that really matters.
The vaccination rate is higher in Chile with 66.8% getting at least one dose and 56.4% getting two doses. According to these numbers, Chile should be the first nation in the world to reopen its economy.
Alas, even with such a high vaccination rate, 95% of intensive care beds are occupied and 200 Chileans died each day from Covid-19. Worst of all, the death rate has dropped little since the first day of vaccinations, almost as if they were only injected with distilled water. Some 77.2% of Chileans received Sinovac shots. Need I say more?
We already have the answer here -- a high vaccination rate and quality vaccines. I do not care about what certain "professor doctors" say, I have real world data, with 100 million real global cases.
Therefore, it is a no brainer to conclude that given the government's current Covid-19 policy, it could take a year to properly vaccinate Thais with quality vaccines.
While the country has to wait for a year to resume normal economic activities, what will happen to the economy and livelihoods of the population of 69.6 million, plus the survival of millions of businesses? Maybe it's time to explore the idea of Economic Hibernation. Basically, the government would stop the clock and put the entire economy in "Sleep Mode".
The principle of "Everyone Survives. No one collapses" is core to this concept. If the country had 100,000 restaurants during pre-pandemic times, after the economy wakes up, those 100,000 restaurants would be up and running again, as if all the Covid drama were nothing but a dream.
Chartchai Parasuk, PhD, is a freelance economist.