Omicron exposes East-West divide on living with COVID

Hwaseong, South Korea – Omicron is exposing an East-West divide between governments decided to halt the unfold of the variant and those who see its unfold as inevitable and even vital.

While some Western nations are accepting the unfold of Omicron as a step in the direction of living with the virus, Asian economies are tightening borders and in-country restrictions to maintain it at bay.

The diverging paths come amid a rising consensus that the variant is way much less prone to trigger severe sickness and dying than the Delta variant, regardless of spreading a lot quicker than its predecessors, a attribute that has nonetheless put stress on hospitals and exacerbated shortages of healthcare employees.

Although many nations initially tightened their borders when the Omicron variant first emerged in November, authorities in Asia have proven little urge for food for alleviating restrictions regardless of excessive vaccination charges and mounting proof of Omicron’s lesser severity.

“Omicron is difficult to handle,” Kentaro Iwata, an infectious specialist knowledgeable at Kobe University, advised Al Jazeera. “It is easy to spread, yet does not have a significant threat for the individual, mostly. However, if the denominator becomes too large to handle, then the numerator will be quite big too.”

In Hong Kong, which has adopted mainland China’s strict “zero Covid” stance, authorities on Thursday banned flights from eight nations, together with the United States and the United Kingdom, doubling down on border restrictions which have turned the worldwide monetary centre into one of many world’s most remoted cities. Authorities additionally reimposed strict social distancing rules, together with forcing bars and gymnasiums to shut and banning restaurant eating after 6 pm.

In mainland China, whose borders have been sealed all through the pandemic, authorities within the metropolis of Xian have imposed a harsh lockdown that has resulted in meals shortages and stories of medical neglect, together with of a girl who miscarried after being denied entry to a hospital.

South Korea, Thailand and Singapore have mandated quarantine for virtually all worldwide travellers since final month, whereas Japan has banned entry to all non-resident foreigners. South Korean authorities have additionally banned eating places from working after 9 pm till not less than January 16, whereas three Japanese prefectures have requested Tokyo approve quasi-emergency measures that embody restrictions on opening hours for eating places and bars.

Korea CovidAsian nations have taken a cautious approach to the extremely transmissible however milder Omicron variant [File: Heo Ran/ Reuters]

Jayant Menon, a visiting senior fellow on the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, advised Al Jazeera “overreacting” to the virus might not be justified at this stage of the pandemic.

“Yet, we continue to see responses from governments that cannot be justified in any cost-benefit sense, even allowing for a broad margin of error,” Menon mentioned.

“In developing countries, the cost of the continued restrictions on health outcomes, operating through loss of livelihoods and incomes, easily outweigh the direct effects of infection from a relatively impotent variant. Therefore, the only viable explanation for the continued restrictions is to try and preserve a limited healthcare system for those with the means to access it, should it become necessary. This approach is economically, socially, and morally bankrupt.”

Asia’s cautious stance stands in distinction with nations such because the US, the UK and Australia, the place record-breaking case numbers are fueling perceptions that tightly controlling the variant is both virtually inconceivable or not well worth the financial and social prices.

In Australia, which carried out among the harshest lockdowns and border controls earlier within the pandemic, Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday declared the “days of lockdown are gone.” State well being officers in latest weeks have advised the general public to just accept that everybody will get Omicron, though some authorities have reintroduced curbs to blunt surging instances, with New South Wales on Friday suspending elective surgical procedures and banning singing and dancing in hospitality venues.

Officials have additionally repeatedly relaxed testing and isolation rules to alleviate disruption to companies and provide chains brought on by file numbers of individuals testing optimistic for the virus.

In the UK, Boris Johnson on Wednesday expressed hope the nation would “ride out” the present Omicron with out additional restrictions.

Although Omicron, which is believed to be 2-Three instances extra transmissible than Delta, has put stress on hospitals in each nations, deaths and intensive care instances stay under earlier peaks. In the UK, the place the primary Omicron case was found six weeks in the past, the variety of sufferers in mechanical air flow beds is lower than one-quarter of their January 2021 peak.

In South Africa, the place the variant was first found, extra deaths throughout its Omicron wave peaked at lower than one-fifth of the toll suffered through the nation’s Beta variant-fuelled wave in January final 12 months. Paul Glasziou, the director of the Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare at Bond University in Australia, has estimated the variant to be about one-third as lethal as Delta for people who find themselves unvaccinated and fewer lethal than the flu for the vaccinated.

‘Deliberate and carefully phased’

Ooi Eng Eong, a professor of rising infectious illnesses at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, advised Al Jazeera he believed nations with excessive vaccination charges might “begin to ease off” on restrictions that have been instituted earlier than vaccines, however doing so can be an artwork as a lot as a science.

“I think that each country will need to inform and prepare the population on scaling back on any measure,” Ooi mentioned. “If not, misconceptions coupled with often widely distributed misinformation can lead to mistrust in public health authorities, which could erode any COVID prevention programme rapidly.  Scaling back on measures will likely benefit from being deliberate and carefully phased.”

Thira Woratanarat, an epidemiologist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, advised Al Jazeera he didn’t consider Asian nations have been overreacting to the variant given healthcare capability and vaccine entry constraints, significantly in poorer elements of the area.

“If they loosely control the epidemic, when it abruptly occurs at a very high and rapid rate, they will encounter a catastrophic moment and hardly control the situation,” he mentioned.


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