Hwaseong, South Korea – As Omicron pushes Western countries toward reopening, Asia is retreating, accentuating an East-West divide on the balance between public health, the economy, and fundamental rights and freedoms.
While the highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus is accelerating the transition to life with COVID-19 in Europe and North America, life in much of Asia-Pacific is a little less restricted – and in some cases still more restricted – than at the start of the pandemic.
The widening gap comes even as many Asia-Pacific countries boast higher vaccination rates than their Western counterparts.
The region’s ultra-cautious stance two years into the pandemic raises questions about its endgame, as border controls and strict social distancing rules, though credited with hitting one of the lowest mortality rates in the world, inflict growing social and economic costs.
“There is a certain level of COVID-related mortality that society is willing to accept,” Cho Sung-il, a professor of epidemiology at Seoul National University in South Korea, told Al Jazeera.
“Individually, there is a certain level of risk from COVID that one is willing to accept, to balance against what one has to pay for it, in terms of social distancing plus vaccination. Asians may value life over freedom, if culture matters. Perhaps because we don’t have strong memories of civil revolutions risking life for freedom.
In mainland China, authorities have doubled down on their zero-tolerance approach that has seen international travel come to a virtual halt and tougher and more frequent lockdowns imposed.
Hong Kong, which is grappling with its biggest pandemic outbreak, has closed schools, bars and gyms and banned dining in restaurants after 6 p.m. The Chinese-controlled territory, long dubbed “Asia’s global city,” ranks among the most isolated metropolises due to some of the strictest quarantine and border rules in the world. In a slight reprieve, authorities announced on Thursday that they would reduce the city’s mandatory hotel quarantine period for arrivals from 21 to 14 days.
In Japan, which is reporting nearly 80,000 daily cases, borders remain closed to all non-residents, while “near-emergency” measures restricting the opening hours of bars and restaurants are in place in 34 of 47 prefectures.
South Korea, which like Japan has avoided large-scale shutdowns throughout the pandemic, requires arrivals to undergo 10 days of quarantine, limits private gatherings to six people and bans restaurants, bars and gyms to operate after 9 p.m. Authorities, who reported more than 16,000 cases on Friday, are expected to review the measures on February 6.
New Zealand, one of the most isolated countries during the pandemic, earlier this month postponed the publication of new spots for its controversial quarantine lottery system – dismaying thousands of citizens stranded abroad who are already facing serious difficulties in returning home.
In Europe, Denmark on Wednesday became the latest country to announce the end of almost all pandemic restrictions despite nearly 50,000 daily cases, a record, following similar measures taken by the United Kingdom and Ireland at the start. of the month. Danish authorities said infections and serious illnesses had become dissociated, while 30-40% of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 were there for other reasons. France has also announced that it will increase the capacity of reception places from next week.
Unlike most countries in Asia, Europe and North America are wide open to quarantine-free travel for vaccinated people.
In 2021, air travel in Asia-Pacific was down 93.2% from 2019, according to the International Air Transport Association, by far the biggest drop of any region.
“Huge cost to people”
The easing of measures in many Western economies comes amid a growing belief that tightly controlling the spread of the variant is either next to impossible or no longer worth the economic and social costs.
In the Netherlands, where some of Europe’s toughest restrictions are being eased after failing to stop cases from reaching record highs, Health Minister Ernst Kuipers said keeping tough restrictions in place for longer would hurt “our health and our society”.
While Omicron has put pressure on healthcare systems due to its rapid spread, the variant has resulted in far fewer deaths than previous waves of the virus. Although thought to be two to three times more transmissible than the Delta variant, Omicron is associated with milder disease than its predecessor, with some public health experts comparing its effect on people who have been vaccinated with influenza.
In an interview with the AFP news agency earlier this week, the World Health Organization’s director for Europe, Hans Kluge, said it was “plausible” that Omicron would push the region towards the end of the pandemic, although he stressed that it was still too early. declare COVID-19 endemic.
Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo, told Al Jazeera that political considerations in different countries played a role, with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s strict border policies influenced by the fall of his two predecessors because of their handling of the pandemic.
“It imposes a huge cost on people – especially students who want to study here and families who want to be reunited,” Kingston said. “It is also harmful to the economy, slamming the hospitality industry, stoking a plague of bankruptcies among small, owner-operated restaurants and bars and pushing tourism-oriented businesses to the brink. The transition from pandemic to endemic will occur but no one knows when.
But Kingston said there were also “good reasons for a certain degree of complacency” in East Asia after the region avoided the mass death seen in Europe and North America, with few considering ” Western models as a reference”.
Although inflicting high costs, Asia-Pacific’s strict handling of the pandemic prevents significant loss of life, even in the post-vaccine era of Omicron. The number of weekly deaths reported by mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea combined remains around a fifth of the UK toll – although that gap is likely to narrow significantly as Omicron takes off in the region.
Nor is the contrast of pandemic controls evenly distributed along East-West lines. In Asia, some tourism-dependent economies like Thailand have taken a bolder approach to reopening borders. And some European countries such as Sweden and Poland have in recent days maintained the line of restrictions in the face of the upsurge in infections.
“I think Asian countries generally expect to return to normal as well, but perhaps more cautiously than some other parts of the world,” said Ben Cowling, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, at Al Jazeera.
“Restrictions are only part of this caution. Over the next few months, I expect to see the number of cases increase to a peak and then cautious easing after the peak of public health measures.
Cho Sung-il, a professor at Seoul National University, said he also expects the gap between more and less open societies to narrow as the Omicron variant spreads.
“I think it’s just that Omicron hasn’t taken over here yet, due to slower spread due to restrictions,” he said. “Once Omicron has completely replaced all cases, the policy level will be set to keep the number of serious cases stable.”