More than a year after the beginning of the health crisis caused by Covid19, vaccines are in many countries considered as the one technological tool that will allow a return to normal life. The promise is that they could allow for a real control of the epidemic (contaminations, hospitalizations, etc.) Not all countries are betting on vaccines only. Either by necessity or by choice, they are building a strategy that counts vaccines as a key element, but not the only one.
Israel’s reported infections decreased dramatically, with 55% of Israelis fully vaccinated. On the 8th of May, they had just 30 new infections. But, if they are very optimistic about the vaccines, they recognize at the same time that their current success is mainly due to their strict lockdown while they were vaccinating the population. They have implemented strict border controls with quarantines along with contact tracing. Their schools were mostly closed earlier in the year.
Israel is a very important case to observe, as it will help measure the real impact of vaccines. Seychelles, a winner in the vaccine race (62,2% of the adult population fully vaccinated), has just decided to take new control measures (closure of schools, cancellation of sporting events, etc.) as infections are surging. At the end of March, Chile, despite its vaccination success, was forced to impose strict new lockdowns as well.
The vaccine has therefore not yet delivered its promises and it remains to be seen if it will deliver by itself the promise of a return to normal life with no new waves of infections. It is however the main strategy Western countries bet on. If it fails, we will have to endure continued yoyoing between periods of more or less strict lockdowns with periods of release, during which new infections will build up until the next lockdown.
Some other countries count vaccines as a tool that will reinforce their whole strategy. Indeed, they have been pursuing an elimination strategy since the onset of the epidemic instead of the mitigation strategy. Both strategies impose similar control measures and reductions in social interaction but in very different time frames. Most Western countries try to mitigate the situation with no intention to eliminate the virus. Other countries – democratic or not – such as New-Zealand, Australia, South Korea, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, etc. are pursuing the elimination strategy because they believe it is impossible to live with it.
If we compare EU Member States with the countries who both share our values and have pursued the Zero Covid strategy (New Zealand, Australia and South Korea), the bottom line is pretty clear: many fewer deaths and more robust GDP. Compared to them, we calculated at the Institut économique Molinari that GDP decline was 5 times higher in France, 4 times higher in Belgium and 7 times higher in Spain. Deaths per million people have been respectively 42, 61 and 48 times higher by the end of April. This order of magnitude remains valid if one accounts for the excess mortality calculated by the University of Washington.
The Zero Covid strategy happens to be very effective at reducing deaths and economic decline. It should not be a surprise that it is very good at reducing uncertainty. After all, participation in economic and social life is a function of people’s confidence in being able to take part without running the risk of falling ill, infecting others or seeing health services overwhelmed.
It is not only government-imposed restrictions that reduce movement. Voluntary decisions by individuals to cut back on social life in the face of a fast-spreading virus also play a key role. The IMF estimates that, in developed countries in general, individual choices to practice social distancing account for more than half of the decrease in mobility, with a greater impact than government-imposed mobility restrictions. This is confirmed by mobility data from Google. They show that “workplace” traffic in the second quarter of 2020 fell by less in the countries applying the Zero Covid strategy (-14% compared to -36%). These data also show that Zero Covid countries retained a significant advantage with a 15% reduction in mobility in January-February 2021 compared to 28% in countries not applying a Zero Covid strategy.
The advantage could become even greater in the future if vaccines do not allow a deep and sustainable reduction of contaminations and variants of concern find ways to bypass antibodies. Zero Covid countries, like Israel now appears to be, do not bet on the vaccines alone as it is a very risky business. It could condemn most Western countries to endless stop and go, and liberties could be at stake for much longer periods of time. We should consider the adoption of a Zero Covid strategy as a way to make our vaccine strategy “antifragile” and restore public liberties while saving people and the economy.
Cécile Philippe is the Founder and President of Institut économique Molinari