Japan’s biggest cities are under a state of emergency as coronavirus deaths rise, even while the country tries to convince the world it can safely hold the Summer Olympics. South Korea is prohibiting gatherings of five or more people to keep a recent surge under control. Hong Kong imposed stringent lockdowns on some of its poorest neighborhoods to stop an uptick.
And yet none of these places have begun to carry out the only solution with any hope of putting the pandemic behind them: vaccinations.
While the United States and most nations in Europe, as well as China and India, have begun inoculating their populations, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong have stood out by proceeding much more slowly.
Japan will not even begin to vaccinate medical workers until the end of February. The same is true in South Korea, and those over 65 will not start receiving inoculations until May. Hong Kong, a semiautonomous territory of China, will begin vaccinating “high risk” groups in the middle of February.
To a certain extent, the three East Asian economic powerhouses have the luxury of time. Despite recent increases in infections, they have not experienced the kinds of outbreaks that have devastated the United States or Britain.
The delays, which come as more contagious and perhaps deadlier variants of the virus are emerging around the globe, could hamper these governments’ efforts to protect the public and restore normalcy for their weary populations.
But postponement also offers opportunities. The laggards can take the time to learn from the troubled rollouts in the United States and Europe.
By moving more deliberately, the East Asian governments may also be able to alleviate some concerns among the public about the remarkable speed with which the vaccines have been created. In Japan and South Korea, polls show that many people are reluctant to get vaccinated right away.
Supply, too, may restrain the speed of the rollout. While Hong Kong approved Pfizer’s vaccine in January, neither Japan nor South Korea has approved any yet.
In theory, Japan has a more urgent deadline. The government is insisting that it will proceed with the Olympics despite intensifying questions about the feasibility of doing so. The Games, which were originally scheduled for 2020 in Tokyo but postponed to this summer, are scheduled to open on July 23.