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Slow vaccine rollout casts cloud on Davos and global events in Asia

WEF Japan chief says country can show leadership in multilateralism

Global vaccinations are moving more slowly than what was initially thought. (Source photos by Yuki Nakao and Reuters) 

TOKYO -- From an annual meeting of the global elite to the Summer Games in Tokyo, the slower-than-expected, and at times clumsy, COVID-19 vaccine rollout has cast doubt on the ability to host international conferences and major sporting events with international spectators.

Singapore is set to host the special annual meeting of World Economic Forum after the international organization moved the site from its traditional home of Davos, Switzerland, to avoid the coronavirus outbreak in Europe. But on Feb. 3, the WEF postponed the meeting from May to August, only days after it held virtual meetings that included world leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The challenge of creating a safe place for face-to-face meetings between international attendees amid the pandemic is still difficult even after living with the new coronavirus for more than a year, indicated Makiko Eda, the WEF's chief representative in Japan.

"We received feedback toward the end of the event that some companies do not even allow business travel," Eda told Nikkei Asia this week, referring to the virtual meetings, known as the Davos Agenda.

"We believed some time ago that vaccine campaigns would be over by [the Singapore summit], but the rollout seems to be taking more time," she said. "We cannot start discussions unless the safety of participants is secured."

Global vaccinations are indeed moving more slowly than what was initially thought. Late last month, AstraZeneca reportedly told the European Union that it would cut the supply of the vaccine it developed with Oxford University by about 60% for the first quarter of 2021, and Pfizer and BioNTech were also forced to supply European countries at levels lower than expected because of supply chain issues, although the two groups later announced additional doses for the bloc to catch up with demand.

"We cannot start discussion unless safety of participants is secured," said Makiko Eda, the chief representative officer of the World Economic Forum Japan. (Photo courtesy of WEF)

Europe is not the only place where vaccine rollouts have faced delays. In the U.S., President Joe Biden said Wednesday that life there would return to normal by Christmas, predicting nearly another year of mask-wearing and social distancing.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Japan began to administer its first vaccines Wednesday, almost two months after the U.K. and EU. South Korea scaled back its vaccination targets on Monday because of delayed shipment from the global vaccine-sharing COVAX program.

These hiccups in responses to the pandemic pushed the WEF annual gathering to August despite being moved to Singapore, which is considered one of the places with the lowest health risks. International travel restrictions also still remain in place, making it difficult for attendees to make arrangements to join.

Meanwhile, the difficulty faced by the WEF has cast a shadow on the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for July after being postponed last year. Japan's organizing committee on Thursday picked a new chief, Seiko Hashimoto, as the successor to Yoshiro Mori after he resigned over making sexist remarks, including that women speak too much in meetings. With only months left to go, the former seven-time Olympian must clear major hurdles to kick off the games.

However, Eda emphasized the importance of offering an opportunity to participants to connect in person. Through the virtual Davos Agenda, "we found so much potential for what we can do digitally, but ultimately new ideas that emerge from person-to-person connections are important," she added.

The weeklong virtual meeting "fulfilled the Davos meeting's role to [provide] vision for the year and later," Eda said, although she acknowledged that it had been challenging at first to imagine what a digital-only meeting could offer. However, compared with its usual annual meeting, "more government leaders participated, while more participants watched the program," she said.

Over 1,700 business and civil society leaders, as well as 24 heads of state and government, joined the event, generating 11 million views -- an increase of over 300% on last year's viewership, according to the WEF. Besides Xi and Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were among the Asian leaders who made appearances.

The event, which was meant to build momentum ahead of the Singapore summit, featured discussions on topics, including COVID-19 health and economic crises, climate change and income inequality. Not only did Eda stress the necessity of international cooperation, but also the leadership role Japan can play.

"Japan has always focused on multilateralism as its core policy," she said. "Japan has quietly led areas such as forming international trade frameworks. ... It is desirable that Japan proactively create cooperation, and the country's significance weighs even more heavily amid the pandemic-hit severe environment."

One of the biggest achievements of the Davos Agenda was the commitment of over 60 global companies to what the forum calls "stakeholder capitalism metrics," codeveloped with accounting companies. Framed in 21 core and 34 additional metrics, they are intended to give clarity of nonfinancial values of a company such as ethical behavior, environmental impact and employee well-being.

Stakeholder capitalism, long promoted by forum founder Klaus Schwab, urges companies to consider not only shareholders but everyone with a stake in their actions -- customers, employees, suppliers and local communities. Eda calls it a "rectified version of capitalism."

"The need to change the concept [of capitalism] has come to the top of the minds of CEOs," Eda said. Chief executives have been somewhat perplexed in choosing among the many sets of metrics for reporting on environmental, social and governance issues, but the forum's standard metrics are expected to "pave the way to visualize corporate contribution to investors and other stakeholders."

The speeches and panel discussions addressed during the Davos Agenda triggered diverse reactions, including criticism. While Xi, who made his second appearance since 2017, called for unity "toward a community with a shared future for mankind," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki denounced his remarks, saying "strategic competition with China is a defining feature of the 21st century."

China by 2060, as well as Japan and South Korea by 2050, promised to achieve net-zero emissions, but 18-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg criticized the goals as "vague, insufficient, hypothetical."

"There are people who urge more speed, as well as those who observe ways in which progress takes place, so the level is various," Eda commented. "The WEF is meant to offer everyone a venue to raise awareness on dialogues and topics, so it was good that active discussions were prompted," she added.

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