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As crisis unfolds in Ukraine, some eyes are on Taiwan

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With more than 100,000 Russian troops massing on the country’s eastern border, the eyes of the world are on Ukraine.

And although the West has been seized by debate about how to respond to potential Russian aggression, China is also closely following how the Ukrainian crisis plays out.

But what lesson will Beijing draw? On that, our foreign policy establishment is divided.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin gets a free pass into eastern Ukraine, even a “minor incursion,” will that embolden Beijing and encourage the Chinese government to make a similar threat to Taiwan?

Or conversely, would an all-out NATO effort to turn back Russian forces drain western resources and provide an opening for the Chinese in Taiwan?

It’s a vivid example of what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat described as a situation with no good answers, “only a least-bad balancing of options.”

It’s not hard to find experts promising imminent peril either way.

“Perhaps the best way to get China to attack Taiwan would be to use our limited military strength to double down in Europe,” wrote defence expert Elbridge Colby, who served as the deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development in the Trump Administration

“Americans and our allies need to grapple with the reality: We don’t and won’t have a military big enough to increase commitments in Europe and have a chance of restoring our edge in Asia against China. We must prioritize,” wrote Colby.

Another former Trump administration official made the opposite case on Fox News on Friday.

“The Chinese are watching this very carefully. (Chinese president) Xi Jinping is watching every move Vladimir Putin takes and is considering that as he decides whether to invade Taiwan after the Olympics or not,” said former national security adviser Robert O’Brien

“We need to make sure that the idea that nation-states can invade their neighbors and take them over by conquest is not the new norm in international relations because it’s going to have consequences far beyond Ukraine,” said O’Brien.

However the U.S. chooses to respond, recent military maneuvers from both America and China show that both countries are keeping one eye on Taiwan while the crisis in Ukraine plays out.

On Sunday, both the Carl Vinson and Abraham Lincoln aircraft carriers began operations in the South China Sea near Taiwan. The same day, Beijing sent 34 fighters plus four electronic warfare aircraft and a single bomber into the Taiwanese air defence zone, the largest incursion since early October.

As the crisis in Ukraine unfolds, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government are deliberating whether to send firearms and ammunition to the country. Canada has already committed to a $120 million loan to Ukraine.

A recent Abacus Data poll organized by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress found that 83 percent of Canadians were either in favour of or neutral to Canada assisting Ukraine to “protect its borders.” Three-quarters of Canadians say they support or could accept Canada sending weapons to Ukraine. The 2016 census found 1.4 million people of Ukrainian heritage in Canada.

The Abacus Data poll surveyed 1,000 Canadians and was conducted between Jan. 20-21.

A recent poll conducted in Ukraine found that close to 60 percent of Ukrainians want their country to join the European Union and NATO, which has been a flashpoint in the current crisis. At a recent press conference, U.S. President Joe Biden said one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands is that Ukraine not be allowed to join NATO.

“We have a number of treaties internationally and in Europe that suggest that you get to choose who you want to be with. But the likelihood that Ukraine is going to join NATO in the near term is not very likely, based on much more work they have to do in terms of democracy and a few other things going on there, and whether or not the major allies in the West would vote to bring Ukraine in right now,” said Biden, at the freewheeling and surprisingly blunt press conference.

The sentiment across Europe is complicated, which Biden alluded to in his comments about the crisis.

A massive Pew Research poll conducted in 2020 across NATO member states and three non-members states, including Ukraine, found that NATO countries view the alliance favourably but are reluctant to fulfill the treaty’s “collective defence” obligations.

In fact, only five member states out of 16 show majority support for using military force to defend a NATO ally from an attack by Russia. Those countries are the Netherlands, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Lithuania.

In Germany, 60 percent of people said NATO should not use force to defend a member state against a hypothetical Russian attack and, in Italy, opposition reached 66 percent.

It reveals the tricky diplomatic situation for those who favour armed intervention against Russia, given that Ukraine isn’t even a member state of NATO and has no immediate likelihood of joining.

Whether or not the West intervenes to thwart Putin, some have argued that the dilemma posed by the crisis in Ukraine is itself an indictment of western military capacity.

“Though Russia poses an immediate threat to our partners and interests, Canada must be able to work with our allies to stand against both Moscow and Beijing’s belligerence simultaneously. They are part of the same authoritarian challenge to the rules-based international order; our attention should not be divided but united against this shared challenge,” wrote former defence minister Peter Mackay, in the National Post this week.

“That we lack the ability to confront both regimes simultaneously and strategically speaks to how atrophied our foreign affairs apparatus has become,” wrote Mackay.

Why are Canadian ICUs filling up faster than other countries?

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The rapid spread of the Omicron variant and early research showing it is much less likely to cause severe outcomes than previous incarnations of the COVID-19 virus has left people around the world nervously eyeing the situation in nearby intensive care units, hoping for the best and fearing the worst.

Although Omicron may be less likely to send people to the ICU, some experts have warned that the highly transmissible virus could infect so many people that hospitals struggle to cope with the deluge of patients.

So far, the most sinister projections haven’t come to pass. In mid-December the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table predicted the province’s ICUs would see more than 600 occupants by the end of the year and, by mid-January, the hospitals still haven’t reported that many occupants.

In the United Kingdom, the ICU numbers have barely budged, with 11.4 people in ICU per million residents, even as Omicron cases reach dizzying heights. In Australia, they are at 15.2 per million people. In Canada? A spike starting in early January left the ICU occupancy rate at 27 occupants per million people on Jan. 13, the last day that all three countries reported reliable data.

The United States, which has always been in a league of its own on ICU occupancies, is at 76.7 per million.

The disparity between the United Kingdom and Canada stands out because until late December, the two countries were following an identical trendline. Australia has always been low and continues to be low, while the United States is high and continues to be high. The worst projections may not have panned out in Canada, but we are still seeing an ICU occupancy rate higher than countries with vaccination rates lower than us.

What’s causing the divergence? It’s almost impossible to say for sure, but there are a few theories that have been proposed.

Natural immunity levels

One stark difference between the U.K. and Canada over the two-year pandemic is the rate of infection.

Although officially reported case rates are likely massively underestimated due to the rapid speed of Omicron transmission, with at least nine in 10 cases going uncounted, the data from previous waves shows that about three times as many Britons endured a previous case of COVID-19 compared to Canadians.

That means the U.K. population is benefitting from a much higher level of natural immunity than Canada while the two countries face the Omicron wave. Because natural immunity offers longer lasting and stronger protection against symptomatic disease and hospitalization, it could make the difference in the ICUs.

“I strongly suspect the amount of post-infectious immunity in the unvaccinated cohort, and possibly levels of hybrid immunity is what makes the difference,” said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases physician at Trillium Health Partners.

The Delta variant was still spreading

Another reason for Canada’s higher ICU occupancy rate could be the remnants of the more virulent Delta variant still circulating in late December. Although Omicron is now dominant, hospitalizations and deaths tend to lag infections by several weeks.

Rupa Subramanya, a columnist at the National Post, wrote that between Nov. 22 and Dec. 25, those with the Delta variant accounted for 190 ICU admissions or deaths in Ontario, while only eight were Omicron patients.

In British Columbia last week, many of the people in hospital were suffering from disease caused by the Delta variant, according to Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer. Lingering Delta cases have also caused hospitalizations in New Brunswick.

Booster shots

When Omicron descended on the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson immediately called for an all-out blitz on booster shots. In terms of raw numbers, the plan worked: The U.K. has given more than 50 booster shots for every 100 residents.

Canada lags behind the U.K., with about 31 boosters given for every 100 residents and one-third of those shots coming in the last two weeks.

It’s possible that the booster gap made a small difference in the ICU occupancy rate of the two countries. Although Johnson’s booster campaign likely came too late to make much difference, since the shots take about a week or two to take effect, the U.K. had many more residents boosted on Dec. 1 than Canada did. A third shot has been shown to be very effective against symptomatic illness and severe effects from Omicron.

Omicron is not milder

Although there was a litany of evidence coming from South Africa, and other countries, that Omicron was less deadly than Delta it took some time for the world to be sure.

As late as Dec. 12, the director-general of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom said that it was “wrong for people to consider Omicron as mild.”

More recent research has definitively found that Omicron causes less severe disease and death than previous variants. A recent study out of California found that Omicron was half as likely to send people to hospital as Delta and that, out of 52,000 Omicron patients studied, not a single one needed a ventilator. This agrees with a handful of other studies from countries battling an Omicron wave.

Although federal modelling released on Friday still included a hypothetical scenario where Omicron turns out to be as severe as Delta — and some news organizations ran with that as the lead story — few believe that scenario is possible.