As new virus outbreaks emerge in developing countries in Asia, vaccines are changing the nature of the pandemic by rendering COVID-19 a much less deadly disease. Governments are responding with milder containment measures.
Across developing countries in Asia, vaccines are gradually reducing COVID-19 fatality rates. While unable to completely stop the spread of the virus, vaccines seem to be highly protective against severe cases of COVID-19. As a result, case fatality rates are higher in economies with low vaccination rates and decline steadily as a higher share of the population becomes fully vaccinated.
Have governments across the region tailored their policies in response to these changing dynamics? With increasing vaccination rates, indicators other than daily new cases of COVID-19—such as fatality rates or hospital occupancy rates—may play a more important role as a signal for tightening or relaxing mobility restrictions.
Governments increase containment stringency when cases rise. But our research found that they do so to a lesser extent when a greater share of the population is vaccinated.
The results suggest that an economy that has not yet commenced its vaccination program tightens containment measures to the equivalent of 2.7 points (on a scale of 100), on average, as COVID-19 cases rise. When 20% and 30% of the population are either partially or fully vaccinated, the effect of rising COVID-19 cases on the stringency index decreases to 1.7 and 1.2 points, respectively.
At 40% partial or full vaccination coverage, the increase in stringency is 0.6 points and is statistically not significantly different from zero. The message is qualitatively equivalent when we look only at fully vaccinated individuals, in that governments rely on lighter containment measures as vaccination rates rise.
This evidence suggests that the pandemic has entered a new phase. Widespread vaccination will make it possible to live with the virus, allowing economies to remain relatively open and breaking the trade-off between lives and livelihoods.
Currently, however, vaccination coverage in developing countries in Asia remains low and uneven. In two-thirds of the region’s economies, the share of the population that has been fully vaccinated is 30% or lower, roughly half of the vaccination coverage in the United States or the European Union. Vaccination coverage comparable to those in advanced economies has only been achieved by the People’s Republic of China and economies that have relatively small populations—such as Bhutan and Singapore.
Several factors are contributing to the uneven progress on vaccination in the region, including differences in the quality of healthcare facilities and logistics capabilities. However, vaccine shortages remain the binding constraint and overriding concern at the moment. As COVID-19 cases continue to ebb and flow, the issue of inadequate vaccine supplies must be addressed foremost to increase vaccination coverage which will allow more governments in the region the option of reducing their reliance on costly containment measures.