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Delta Spread Highlights Urgency of Vaccination ‘Last Mile’

With vaccine rates stagnating and the more contagious variant rampant, workplaces and governments are exploring ways to persuade—or coerce—the vaccine-hesitant.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
People wait to get vaccinated for COVID-19 at a baseball game in Springfield, Missouri, on Aug. 5.
People wait to get vaccinated for COVID-19 at a baseball game in Springfield, Missouri, on Aug. 5. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The delta variant delays a return to normalcy in the West, fresh protests planned in Colombia, and China aims to provide 2 billion vaccine doses overseas by the end of 2021.

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Delta Slows Reopening Plans

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The delta variant delays a return to normalcy in the West, fresh protests planned in Colombia, and China aims to provide 2 billion vaccine doses overseas by the end of 2021.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Delta Slows Reopening Plans

The likelihood of a quick return to the pre-pandemic way of life in the West seems more and more remote as the rise of the delta variant upends plans for remote workers to return to a life of commutes and offices within the year.

On Thursday, the banking giant Wells Fargo announced a one-month delay in its plans for a September return for corporate office workers. The retail and tech leader Amazon has gone even further, postponing a return for its office workers until January 2022.

The delays reflect the ambiguous situation rich countries find themselves in: with vaccination rates high enough to begin planning for a future without restrictions but not so high as to know for certain when that future will be.

Getting close to a fully vaccinated population has proved difficult for the United States, despite its vast resources. The U.S. challenge is illustrated by the tortoise-and-hare game of catchup played by the European Union, which now has a higher rate of vaccination among its population than the United States, despite an initially slow and error-filled rollout.

The unvaccinated. A survey released on Aug. 4 by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that five nonexclusive demographic groups scored 20 percent or higher in responding “definitely not” when asked whether they would receive a COVID-19 vaccine: Republicans, white evangelical Christians, rural residents, those aged 18-29, and uninsured people under 65 years old.

That opposition may have more to do with practical concerns than dogmatic ones. A different KFF poll found that employers who encouraged their employees to get a shot or those that allowed paid time off to recover from side effects had a much higher vaccine uptake than workplaces that did not.

Military mandate. Perhaps with that in mind, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected Friday to announce plans to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for all 1.3 million active-duty personnel.

Vaccination rates vary across the military branches: As of June 30, the U.S. Navy has the highest, with 77 percent receiving at least one shot, while only 58 percent of U.S. Marine Corps service members have had one dose.

Europe’s carrot-stick. As Europe tries to boost its own vaccination rate, an entry back to normal life is the main incentive. France, Greece, and Italy are all in various stages of banning the unvaccinated from indoor venues such as restaurants and movie theaters. It’s not clear how well the threat will work, as residents may wish to remain outside in the summer months. In France, the plans have been met with fierce protests.

Third shots. While the West struggles with its last mile of vaccination, the possibility of providing third booster shots comes into focus. The move has already been condemned by the World Health Organization (WHO), which sees the move as wasteful when poorer countries are still failing to acquire enough vaccine supplies to begin giving first doses. WHO has recommended a moratorium until at least the end of September to keep vaccine supplies flowing to poor countries.

The vaccine-maker Moderna has joined Pfizer in recommending a third booster shot, citing the reduced efficacy of the current two-shot regimen over time. Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel seemed less concerned about WHO’s worries regarding equity. “As a company, I don’t control what people use a product for,” he told the Wall Street Journal.


What We’re Following Today

U.N. meets on Afghanistan. The U.N. Security Council holds an emergency meeting Friday to discuss Afghanistan’s security situation following weeks of escalating attacks by Taliban forces. Fighting continues in the provincial capitals of Herat and Kandahar as well as Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, as the militant group seek inroads in urban centers after having primarily targeted rural districts in their advance. On Thursday, Alexander Vikantov, a senior official at Russia’s foreign ministry, said the Taliban offensive was “gradually running out of steam,” citing the group’s lack of resources and the recent retaking of Taliban-held districts by the Afghan government.

Tokyo surges again. Tokyo logged its highest daily coronavirus caseload on Thursday, reporting more than 5,000 new cases as Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced new emergency measures for several prefectures across the country. Tokyo’s test positivity rate stands at 20 percent, suggesting infections are more widespread than official figures show.

Suga headed off criticism for hosting the Olympics during the latest increase in cases, saying that there is no evidence linking the Games to the present surge. The prime minister pledged to focus on strengthening vaccination efforts, which currently lag behind other developed nations.

Colombia protests. More anti-government protests are expected in the Colombian capital of Bogotá Friday as groups led by the country’s major labor union demand a response to reform proposals put forward last month. The protests come as authorities say they foiled a plan hatched by dissident members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group to attack police and military members during the protests. Colombian police said they also confiscated 148 pounds of explosives from the rebels, who were allegedly about to commit a “terrorist attack” in the city, Defense Minister Diego Molano said.


Keep an Eye On

Exxon considers net-zero. The oil giant Exxon is considering embracing a pledge to become a net-zero carbon emitter by 2050, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Exxon faces internal pressure to move away from its fossil fuel-producing core business following a boardroom coup in June. Exxon has yet to lay out what a move to net-zero emissions would entail. The news also comes after a senior Exxon lobbyist in June told undercover reporters that the company’s commitment to a carbon tax was embraced as a smokescreen tactic due to its political infeasibility.

China’s vaccine push. China is aiming to provide 2 billion vaccine doses to other countries by the end of the year, Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Thursday, as he pledged $100 million to the WHO-backed COVAX initiative. The statement comes as Foreign Minister Wang Yi reported 770 million doses have been exported so far. The United States, which has criticized China’s “vaccine diplomacy,” has donated roughly 110 million doses to date.


Odds and Ends

Authorities on the Spanish island of Ibiza are on the hunt for foreigners with a knack for blending in at parties to help them crack down on gatherings that breach COVID-19 regulations. As the Guardian reports, the foreigners—ideally between the ages of 30 and 40—would be tasked with infiltrating house parties (prohibited between the hours of 1 and 6 a.m.) and alerting the police.

“Police themselves say it’s difficult for them to infiltrate, as they are known to locals. So we have to look outside for help,” a local official told an Ibiza newspaper. Spain’s Socialist Party, which controls the island’s regional administration, has criticized the move as irresponsible and has asked for “serious proposals that have legal backing” instead.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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