Elsewhere in the world

Nations still in search of best formula for coping with crisis

JAPAN Closed shops in the traditional Tokyo district of Asakusa amid the pandemic. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga yesterday extended Japan's ongoing third state of emergency to May 31 from the intended expiry date of May 11.
JAPAN: Closed shops in the traditional Tokyo district of Asakusa amid the pandemic. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga yesterday extended Japan's ongoing third state of emergency to May 31 from the intended expiry date of May 11. PHOTO: REUTERS
INDIA Health workers resting outside a hospital in Ahmedabad, Gujarat state. India yesterday saw a record 414,188 new Covid-19 cases, bringing its total to 21.49 million. The number of deaths soared by 3,915 to 234,083.
INDIA: Health workers resting outside a hospital in Ahmedabad, Gujarat state. India yesterday saw a record 414,188 new Covid-19 cases, bringing its total to 21.49 million. The number of deaths soared by 3,915 to 234,083.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
UNITED STATES The Theatre District in Manhattan. Many cosmopolitan US areas such as New York have eased, or will ease, their capacity limits this month in a sign that an aggressive vaccination drive has begun to pay off.
UNITED STATES: The Theatre District in Manhattan. Many cosmopolitan US areas such as New York have eased, or will ease, their capacity limits this month in a sign that an aggressive vaccination drive has begun to pay off.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

At eateries and bars, there is a ban on alcohol sales. They have also been asked to observe an 8pm curfew on dining in.

These are measures Japan has enacted in its ongoing third state of emergency, which Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga yesterday extended to May 31 from the intended expiry date of May 11.

The emergency will cover six prefectures - up from four - with Aichi and Fukuoka added to a list that had comprised Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto. Another eight regions, including Hokkaido and Okinawa, are under so-called "quasi-emergency" measures.

Yet in announcing the extension, Mr Suga also eased measures that had briefly shut leisure venues and shopping malls above 1,000 sq m since April 25.

Event organisers can fill half a venue capacity or have 5,000 attendees, whichever is lower - without the need for pre-testing.

Schools and indoor sports gyms have remained open throughout. There is no official limit on the size of gatherings, while many workplaces have ignored loose requests for telecommuting.

While Covid-19 has raged on for more than a year, there is still no global gold standard for the best formula that balances public health interests with the indelible economic impact that harsh lockdowns will impose.

And Mr Suga, like many of his global counterparts, is in a quandary in his struggles to find the elusive sweet spot.

He will have his eye on the data: Japan recorded more deaths by suicide in the whole of last year (20,919) than that due to Covid-19 (10,612) as at Thursday.

But any illusions that Japan's relatively low numbers may allow the Prime Minister to breathe easy would have burst with the clock ticking down fast on the Olympic Games that are due to flag off in 11 weeks on July 23.

As Japan presses ahead with what it hopes will be a feel-good bonanza - the oft-cited proverbial "light at the end of the pandemic tunnel" - the world is watching to see how the country rouses global confidence in its measures even as Mr Suga appears to be losing the patience of his countrymen.

Japan has flitted in and out of emergency declarations since last year, but without punitive measures, the "stay-home requests" that worked so well in the first 49-day emergency last year fail to ram home the severity of the pandemic.

While the current measures have brought down footfall somewhat from that in the second 73-day emergency earlier this year, people traffic is still exponentially higher than it was last year. Trains are still crowded, and the public is dodging restrictions by crossing prefecture borders.

Mr Suga's main headache would be the Covid-19 variants that are not only more infectious and deadlier, but also now effectively mainstream and account for over half of the new cases in Tokyo and Osaka. Clusters have recently emerged in myriad places - from old folks' homes and schools to hospitals and even the Health Ministry.

Worse, several unlinked cases of the "double mutation" variant that was traced to India have emerged in the community.

Yet Mr Suga's occasional refusal to listen to his own medical experts - perhaps because he has an eye on the high-stakes gambit that is the Olympics or fears that imposing harsher measures will hurt livelihoods in a pivotal election year - has led to concerns that it may backfire.

The Japanese public is well aware of how Mr Suga dithered in pulling the plug on the Go To Travel domestic tourism campaign last year.

More recently, he promised the public that Japan will emerge from the 17-day emergency as planned on May 11 - disregarding his own experts who had recommended a longer emergency period - with "short, intensive, focused and powerful" measures.

He reneged on that promise yesterday with the extended, watered-down emergency.

Still, he does not have to look farther than India for a cautionary tale of what can happen if measures are lifted too quickly, too soon.

RECORD BREAKER

Just two months ago, India was one of the world's most upbeat nations, having entered what Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan described as the "endgame".

The buoyant mood led Prime Minister Narendra Modi to agree at a Quad summit meeting with Mr Suga, US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to deliver India-made vaccines to developing countries.

In mid-February, the daily new infections were about 10,000 in a country of 1.3 billion people.

But yesterday, India set a record daily spike in cases with 414,188 new infections, bringing its total to 21.49 million.

The number of deaths soared by 3,915 to 234,083.

The wave was triggered by the easing of restrictions, including allowing tens of thousands to fill stadiums for cricket matches. Packed religious gatherings that drew millions of Hindus were also permitted, while the country went ahead with elections and campaign rallies that drew crowds.

Now, hospitals are turning patients away amid a lack of beds and, even worse, oxygen. Families and relatives have had to resort to makeshift funeral pyres for their loved ones who died and even to bury them in the backyard as crematoriums are overwhelmed.

India, which has been touting a policy of self-reliance, has sought overseas help for oxygen plants and ventilators.

Given how the situation has escalated so quickly and amid uncertainty over the efficacy of existing vaccines, fears are growing that the variant first detected in India may wreak as much havoc globally as the original coronavirus that was first reported in Wuhan, China.

Australia last week banned all travellers from India, including its own citizens, from entering the country although repatriation flights are being planned.

New variants that can be traced to Britain, South Africa and Brazil are being detected worldwide. The strain traced to India, meanwhile, has already been detected in countries as far-flung as Singapore, Germany, Kenya and Canada.

The burning question remains whether a pandemic-weary world has the wherewithal to once again go under lockdown like it did in the "lost year" that is 2020.

Global leaders are coping with a rise in cases with measures of varying degrees.

Malaysia has put its capital Kuala Lumpur under a movement control order (MCO) from yesterday to May 20, after a surge in Covid-19 cases with the onset of Ramadan. Daily cases last week topped 3,000 for the first time since February.

Under the MCO, dining in at eateries is banned and food outlets are allowed to open only for takeaway and delivery orders between 6am and midnight.

But as restrictions were tightened in Malaysia, they were eased in Cambodia with Prime Minister Hun Sen lifting a blanket three-week lockdown on Thursday despite signs of a resurgence. The country reported a new daily record of 938 cases yesterday.

In Europe, France said that up to 1,000 spectators will be allowed into each of the main courts for the French Open tennis tournament, while smaller venues can admit 35 per cent of their capacity.

In Spain, Madrid's conservative regional leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso won a landslide re-election victory on the platform of keeping bars and shops open during the pandemic. This was despite the capital registering a higher rate of infection than most of the country.

Denmark and Cyprus are easing restrictions with a new "corona pass" that gives those who have tested negative in the past 72 hours, been vaccinated, or recently recovered from Covid-19 access to bars, gyms, theatres and cinemas which were shut during lockdown.

Sweden, famous for not having imposed harsh lockdowns as seen elsewhere in Europe, now has the ignominy of having the most cases per 100,000 people on the continent. It has gradually been turning the screws since last November, when it imposed a ban on alcohol sales after 8pm and public gatherings of more than eight people.

Farther afield, the United States is imposing social distancing orders that vary by state, county and even city. But many of its most cosmopolitan areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York have eased, or will ease, their capacity limits this month in a sign that an aggressive vaccination campaign has begun to pay off.

Yet elsewhere, Brazil is in national mourning after the death of comedian Paulo Gustavo, a beloved national icon, at the age of 42 from Covid-19 on Tuesday. More than 400,000 Brazilians have died in the country of 212 million, though President Jair Bolsonaro has tended to play down the disease.

While Mr Bolsonaro has continually denied the "politics of stay home and shut everything down", it remains unclear if Mr Gustavo's death will be a rallying call for stronger action - just as how in Japan, the death of popular comedian Ken Shimura, 70, from Covid-19 on March 29 last year sent shock waves through the nation.

"At this point, we don't need to declare a state of emergency," then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said a day before Mr Shimura's death. He would do so a week later.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 08, 2021, with the headline 'Nations still in search of best formula for coping with crisis'. Subscribe