Hwaseong, South Korea – Omicron uncovers an East-West divide between governments determined to stop the spread of the variant and those who see its spread as inevitable and even necessary.
While some Western countries accept the spread of Omicron as a step to live with the virus, Asian economies are tightening borders and restrictions in the country to keep it at bay.
The divergent paths come amid a growing consensus that the variant is far less likely to cause serious illness and death than the Delta variant, despite spreading much faster than its predecessors, a trait that nevertheless put pressure on hospitals and exacerbated shortages of health care workers.
Although many countries initially tightened their boundaries when the Omicron variant first appeared in November, authorities in Asia has shown little appetite for easing restrictions despite high vaccination rates and increasing evidence of Omicron’s less seriousness.
“Omicron is difficult to deal with,” Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease specialist at Kobe University, told Al Jazeera. “It is easy to spread, but usually does not pose a significant threat to the individual. However, if the denominator becomes too large to handle, the counter will also be quite large. ”
In Hong Kong, which followed mainland China’s strict “zero covid” stance, authorities on Thursday banned flights from eight countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, doubling the border restrictions imposed by the International Financial Center one of the world’s most isolated cities. Authorities have also reintroduced strict rules on social distancing, including forcing bars and gyms to close and banning restaurant meals after 6 p.m.
In mainland China, whose borders have been sealed by the entire pandemic, authorities in the city of Xian have imposed a severe curfew that has led to food shortages and reports of medical neglect, including from a woman who gave birth after she had access to a hospital was denied.
South Korea, Thailand and Singapore have quarantined almost all international travelers since last month, while Japan has banned entry for all non-resident foreigners. South Korean authorities also banned restaurants from operating after 9 p.m. until at least January 16, while three Japanese prefectures requested Tokyo to approve quasi-emergency measures that include opening hours restrictions for restaurants and pubs.
Jayant Menon, a visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told Al Jazeera that ‘overreacting’ to the virus can no longer be justified at this stage of the pandemic.
“Yet we still see responses from governments that can not be justified in any cost-benefit sense, even that allow for a broad margin of error,” Menon said.
“In developing countries, the cost of the continued restrictions on health outcomes, which function through loss of livelihood and income, easily outweighs the direct consequences of infection of a relatively impotent variant. Therefore, the only feasible explanation for the continued restrictions is to try to preserve a limited health care 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 contrasts with countries such as the US, the UK and Australia, where record-breaking numbers are fueling perceptions that strict control of the variant is either practically impossible or not worth the economic and social cost.
In Australia, which implemented some of the strictest restrictions and border controls earlier in the pandemic, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared on Monday that the “days of restriction are over.” State health officials have in recent weeks urged the public to accept that everyone will get Omicron, although some authorities have again set curbs for bluntly rising cases, with New South Wales suspending elective surgery on Friday and banning singing and dancing in hospitality venues.
Officials have also repeatedly relaxed the testing and isolation rules to alleviate disruption to businesses and supply chains caused by a record number of people testing positive for the virus.
In the UK, Boris Johnson on Wednesday expressed hope that the country would “drive out” the current Omicron without further restrictions.
Although Omicron, which is believed to be 2-3 times more transferable than Delta, has put pressure on hospitals in both countries, deaths and intensive care cases remain below previous peaks. In the UK, where the first Omicron case was discovered six weeks ago, the number of patients in mechanical ventilation beds is less than a quarter of their peak in January 2021.
In South Africa, where the variant was first discovered, excess deaths during its Omicron wave peaked at less than one-fifth of the toll suffered during the country’s Beta variant-powered wave last January year. Paul Glasziou, director of the Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare at Bond University in Australia, estimated that the variant is about one-third as deadly as Delta for people who have not been vaccinated and less deadly than flu for the vaccinated.
‘Deliberately and carefully phased’
Ooi Eng Eong, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, told Al Jazeera he believed countries with high vaccination rates could “start to relax” on vaccine restrictions, but to to do will be an art as much as a science.
“I think every country will have to inform the population and prepare to scale back on any measure,” Ooi said. “If not, misconceptions coupled with often widespread misinformation can lead to mistrust in public health authorities, which can quickly erode any COVID prevention program. Scaling back on measures is likely to benefit from deliberate and cautious phases. ”
Thira Woratanarat, an epidemiologist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told Al Jazeera he does not believe Asian countries are overreacting to the variant given healthcare capacity and vaccine access restrictions, especially in poorer parts of the region.
“If they loosely control the epidemic, when it suddenly occurs at a very high and fast pace, they will encounter a catastrophic moment and barely control the situation,” he said.