As Omicron subvariants power a Covid-19 infection surge, world govts keep calm and carry on

Covid-19 outbreaks no longer trigger extreme measures such as lengthy lockdowns and border shutdowns as it did two years ago. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - Covid-19 is again spreading fast across Asia and the rest of the world, as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus mutates into even more infectious subvariants.

But unlike how it was two years ago, the outbreaks are no longer triggering extreme measures such as lengthy lockdowns and border shutdowns that were imposed in 2020 and 2021.

"Two years ago, we had to prevent exponential growth in the face of no immunity, no vaccines. The situation is different now," said epidemiologist Edsel Salvana, an adviser to the Philippine Health Ministry.

Most of Asia's governments are instead sticking to reasonably strict health protocols, ramping up vaccination, and keeping a close eye on their hospitals.

An exception is China, which is still pursuing a zero-Covid-19 policy and all the draconian measures that go with it.

Much of the rest of the world is also not reversing course, even as the ultra-contagious BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants fuel fresh surges.

The United States is focusing on rolling out booster shots, while some countries in Europe are rethinking their mask mandates, but nothing more beyond that.

Still, this new wave is throwing a spanner in the plans of many countries in Asia to finally put the pandemic behind them - to live with Covid-19.

Asia has been seeing spikes in Covid-19 cases since June, set off by the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants that emerged as governments began taking a more relaxed approach to the pandemic.

Spikes everywhere

Indonesia saw Covid-19 cases soar by more than sixfold within a four-week period alone ending on June 28 from a seven-day daily average of 266 new cases to 1,876. That was the highest increase in the world for that period.

Thailand is also tallying more infections after seeing a decline that started in April. It currently records about 2,000 new cases a day, but doctors say this figure does not include unreported infections detected at home with antigen rapid test kits.

New cases in the Philippines rose 60 per cent to more than 7,300 in the week ending on July 3. As in Thailand, the actual number may be much higher, as the government has halted mass testing.

India has been reporting more deaths, along with a growth in cases. It reported 112,456 new cases for the week ending on July 3, a jump of 21 per cent compared with the previous week, and 200 new deaths.

In South Korea, the health authorities have confirmed that the country is now facing a new Covid-19 wave. Daily infection figures stayed above 18,000 cases for four consecutive days last week - double the previous week's average.

People wait in line to take tests at a Covid-19 testing station in Seoul on June 29, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Japan, too, is seeing nascent signs of a seventh wave, with all 47 prefectures registering week-on-week increases in cases.

It is now recording infection numbers unseen in months. Tokyo recorded 9,482 cases on Sunday (July 10), 2.5 times the number from a week earlier.

Meanwhile, Aichi prefecture governor Hideaki Omura described the surge as "not just a rebound but clearly an onslaught", with an "astonishing" rise in cases.

The current surge coincided with a relaxation of mask advisories due to a heatstroke risk amid the most ferocious June heatwave in Japan's history.

Reinstating some restrictions

Governments in Asia are readying measures just in case things get out of hand.

Jakarta and its surrounding satellites in neighbouring Banten and West Java provinces last week began imposing public activity restrictions that include limiting operations of companies, shopping malls and restaurants to 75 per cent of their full capacity until Aug 1.

Starting from July 17, Indonesia is also reinstating Covid-19 testing rules for travellers who have had only two shots.

Hospitals in Thailand have begun to sound the alarm, as the number of Covid-19 patients seeking treatment rises and doctors are advised to prepare for a potential new wave.

Japan is likewise placing local governments and hospitals on alert.

It is also looking at holding back on plans to reopen further to foreign tourists, just as the first tour groups on controlled itineraries start to arrive in the country.

South Korea's Health Ministry, meanwhile, is discussing counter-measures with medical experts that may include a return to social distancing.

India is reducing the gap between the second dose and a booster shot to six months from the nine months previously for all adults, after seeing a slow uptake of booster doses.

While more than 846.4 million people above 18, or about 60 per cent of the population, have received their second dose, only a little more than 49.7 million, or 3.4 per cent of the population, have received their booster dose as at July 7.

The rest of the world

The pandemic picture in the US seems to have been remarkably stable, with the average number of confirmed cases per day hovering between 95,000 and 115,000. But that may be on the low side, as many states have stopped giving daily updates, and with the BA.5 subvariant already accounting for half of new cases.

Yet, the government is not lining up any big counter-measures, other than rolling out new vaccine formulas targeted at emerging subvariants.

Europe is also seeing a summertime surge, with Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Switzerland and Cyprus tagged as hot spots.

But while smaller nations like Cyprus and cities like Nice, in France, are reinstating indoor mask mandates and requiring masks to be worn on public transportation, most of the continent is carrying on business as usual.

A Covid-19 testing tent placed along the Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 1, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Optimism

Governments across the globe are hoping that with the measures they now have in place, and with the Omicron subvariants causing less severe disease than, for instance, the deadly Delta variant, things are likely to only get better despite the spikes in infection rates.

In Asia, Thailand's Public Health Ministry expects infections to peak at about 4,000 a day in September.

Indonesia's health officials say its current wave will peak at 17,000 cases a day in the third week of July.

Analysts in the Philippines expect cases to start tapering off by the end of July.

Some medical experts in South Korea predict daily infection figures could rise to 100,000, but others say this new wave may inflict less damage as the symptoms are less severe.

Philippine Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said last week the coronavirus "is here to stay". But she said the hope is that "eventually it will be as worrying as getting the flu".

"We just have to be more cautious," she said.

  • With reports from Tan Tam Mei in Bangkok, Linda Yulisman in Jakarta, Walter Sim in Tokyo, Chang May Choon in Seoul and Debarshi Dasgupta in New Delhi

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