The metaphor of the roller-coaster ride is often overused by writers. However, it feels quite appropriate when we try to evaluate the performance of different countries, and their political or social systems, during the now 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic. For what we are witnessing now, 18 months in, is a new phase of the roller-coaster, one in which Europe and the United States look to be riding upward while large parts of East Asia, including Japan, are in a downward phase.
One thing that this roller-coaster process tells us is that it is too soon to make firm judgements about the geopolitical consequences of the pandemic or about the effects on the long-term images of particular countries. The wider lesson concerns the very nature of a pandemic, that a virus can never safely be assumed to be fully under control, especially while countries differ so much in their progress on developing immunity to the virus by means of vaccinations.
In 2020, we first saw China look in trouble, as it showed a lack of transparency about the spread of the virus; but then, as the virus spread rampantly in Europe, North America and South America, but was brought swiftly under control in the country of its origin, China, the common judgement was that China was looking effective, efficient and capable while Europe, North America and South America looked variously incompetent, unprepared, confused and incapable.
That early judgement shaded toward a belief that perhaps authoritarian systems were better suited to deal with a crisis such as a pandemic while democracies were too slow to make decisions and power there was too decentralised. The world was saved, however, from a rush to this judgement in favour of dictatorships by the fact that, over the subsequent months, it became clear that China's success was not just being replicated but also bettered in democratic countries such as Taiwan, New Zealand and South Korea, and that good outcomes were also being seen in Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and even India.
What we were seeing, it seemed, was a shift in world power and leadership towards Asia. Just as Henry Luce, the publisher of Time magazine, chose 1941 to proclaim the beginning of "the American century," so some commentators were tempted to proclaim the Covid pandemic as signifying the arrival of the Asian century.
Yet the roller-coaster has had too many surprises for us to be able to accept this early judgement. What we now see before us is a display of three important things.
First, the continued technological, organisational and economic power of the United States and Europe, as shown by their development of innovative vaccines, by their rapid roll-out of vaccines in the American and European populations, and by the unexpectedly rapid recovery of their economies, which now seem likely to exceed pre-pandemic output levels by the end of 2021 or early 2022.
Second, the complacency and technological incapacity of most East Asian countries, which were unable to develop or produce vaccines and so are far behind Europe and North America in their vaccination programmes, while also now seeing new waves of infections and consequently new economic and social restrictions.
And third, how China nonetheless stands head and shoulders above all other Asian countries in its technological and organisational capability when it comes to vaccines.
China was slow to start its vaccination programme. But during the month of May its two big vaccine producers, Sinovac and Sinopharm, succeeded in trebling their output of vaccine doses, to 454 million, becoming the world's largest Covid-vaccine producing location.
Thanks to that, China was able to increase its daily rate of vaccinations from 5 million in mid-April to more than 20 million per day as the month of June began. Proportionate to population, that rate is something like three times as fast as Japan is currently achieving and almost double the one million a day that Japan has set as its target.
This, however, is not really a surprise. It was clear that China would be capable of increasing its production and its domestic vaccinations once the government and the pharmaceutical firms decided to do so. China remains behind the US and UK in terms of the share of its population that have been vaccinated, but will soon catch up. Once it does, we are likely to see something of a contest in world markets and in overseas aid between the Chinese vaccines and the more sophisticated but costlier American and European ones.
The big Asian surprises, from a western point of view, have been India and Japan. India has been a surprise because it had long claimed to be the world's leading manufacturer of vaccines, and high hopes were placed on Indian companies as suppliers of Covid-19 jabs. Yet those companies' production has been disappointingly low and India itself has been catastrophically late and disorganised in terms of its vaccine programme.
Japan has been a surprise because the international image of Japan is one of technological sophistication, of a high capability in dealing with emergencies, and of proven organisational skills. Moreover, as 2020 neared its end and as 2021 began, it was assumed that Japan's obligation to host the postponed Olympic and Paralympic Games in July and August would surely give the country a big incentive to start vaccinations early and to protect the population rapidly, so as to guarantee a successful Games.
As everyone now knows, this was a completely false assumption. The world is unsure how to interpret Japan's failure to live up to those expectations: was the government complacent, like other East Asian countries, thanks to past success in suppressing the virus? Did the rigidity and silo-mentality of Japan's bureaucracy, which has been noted before, simply prove so strong as to prevent any true emergency response? Is Japan actually not as technologically sophisticated as it appears?
Whatever the explanation, Japan's international image has been tarnished, even as those of the US, EU and China are looking shinier. Decisions to donate more public funds to the international COVAX programme to buy vaccines for poor countries are certainly positive, but they do not outweigh the damage that has been done.
Sorry to say, if either athletes' unwillingness to travel to an infected, unvaccinated country forces a cancellation of the Olympic Games or if Japan's government yields to public pressure to request one, this will be a further, big, blow to Japan's reputation worldwide. The roller-coaster truly provides a turbulent ride.
(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)