Asia cautiously opens up amid Covid-19

Despite increasing vaccination rates, many Asia-Pacific countries do not open their doors in a hurry, in order to prevent infections and deaths from rising.

Earlier this month, Singapore reached a new milestone in the fight against Covid-19, when more than 80% of the country’s population was fully vaccinated. But instead of quickly celebrating “Freedom Day” and releasing the door completely like Britain, the Singapore government carefully considered its next steps. The reason is that infections have increased to several hundred cases a day after previous easing of restrictions, raising concerns about the risk of hospitals being overwhelmed.

“We believe it is necessary to be more cautious to pause the plan and do our best to reduce the spread as much as possible,” Lawrence Wong, co-chair of Singapore’s Covid-19 task force, said at the last press conference. last week.

Widespread vaccination is seen as the way to return to normalcy. But for Asia-Pacific countries, which have been successful with strict epidemic control strategies, entering the post-vaccination world is complicated.

A street in Seoul, South Korea on July 9.  Photo: Reuters.

A street in Seoul, South Korea on July 9. Photo: Reuters

Success in containing large outbreaks in countries such as Japan, South Korea and Australia has helped them record low numbers of infections and deaths. This encourages people to adhere to restrictive measures while waiting for a vaccine supply.

Currently, vaccine supply in many countries has improved. Singapore leads the region in vaccination rates, while Japan, South Korea and Australia are also accelerating rapidly, with 70-80% of the population expected to be vaccinated by November, catching up with or even surpassing them. USA, UK and many Western European countries.

Japan and New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s most populous states, recently announced a roadmap to ease restrictions as the proportion of the population is fully vaccinated, while South Korean officials are increasingly talking about plan to live with the virus.

The phased return to normal life plan of the rich Asia-Pacific countries seems to be in contrast to the rapid opening of the US and more similar to the approach of many European countries. Masks are still in use. Mass gatherings will be limited, even to fully vaccinated people. Social distancing will not be completely eliminated.

The US has recorded about 112,000 infections per million people, the UK 105,000 and Europe 82,000, according to Our World in Data. Meanwhile, Australia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea report about 32,000 cases per million inhabitants.

The mortality rate in four Asian countries is also only about one-tenth that of the US or UK. Singapore and the US state of Minnesota have comparable populations, but the Southeast Asian country reports 58 deaths, while the death toll from Covid-19 in Minnesota is closer to 7,900.

Fully vaccinated people have a lower risk of hospitalization and death from Covid-19 than unvaccinated people, scientists say. But for the Asia-Pacific countries, this is not enough to make them let their guard down.

“If you open too soon, you run the risk of everything being disrupted,” said Alexandra Martiniuk, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Sydney School of Public Health. “Consistency often works.”

Singapore officials said they will suspend the reopening plan for at least a few weeks to monitor the epidemic trend and compare the data with countries such as the UK or Israel, where the infection rate increased sharply after the easing of restrictions. The aim of Singaporean authorities is to keep the rate of severe cases and deaths low and avoid having to re-impose strict measures such as blockade.

Singapore has increased testing, but relaxed the requirement for F0 cases to be isolated in medical facilities, aiming to allow mild Covid-19 cases to be treated at home to reduce pressure on hospitals when the number of infections increases. get a raise. Singapore has recorded hundreds of infections a day and is expected to continue to increase in the next two weeks. As of September 13, this country has 57 patients in need of oxygen and 8 critical cases.

Japan’s reopening roadmap, scheduled to be tested next month, allows restaurants to stay open longer and serve alcohol, while baseball fields are also allowed to host more spectators. Vaccinators may also be allowed to travel, eat in large groups, and visit relatives in nursing homes, activities that are currently discouraged or prohibited.

But if cases increase, the public may be worried. At the end of August, after a period of time when the number of daily infections increased to about 25,000, three times the previous peak, 61% of respondents to a survey by Fuji News Network said they would like to extend the state of emergency in other locations. as hot as Tokyo. Three-quarters of those surveyed said Japan should prepare a European-style blockade, with mandatory travel restrictions.

The Australian state of New South Wales last week also announced a “roadmap to freedom”, in which many restrictions on fully vaccinated people will be relaxed early next week, after population vaccination rates reach 70%. . Vaccinated people are allowed to gather in groups of no more than five people, while domestic travel is also resumed. Shops, hair salons and gyms can also open, but must ensure social distancing.

But officials say the reopening schedule could change if there are major outbreaks. “With the Delta mutation, we cannot expect that there will be no more cases across Australia,” Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last month reaffirmed a step-by-step reopening strategy, in which restrictions will be eased when 70 per cent of the population aged 16 and over are vaccinated. When the vaccination rate reaches 80%, blockade measures will be less applied and domestic and international travel will gradually resume.

The Doherty Institute, which studies the epidemic model for the Australian government’s reopening plan, said that when they looked at the situation in countries where all restrictions were lifted, they realized there is no “free day” as many people expect. hope.

A Covid-19 test site at a public housing complex in Singapore on June 16.  Photo: Reuters.

A Covid-19 test site at a public housing complex in Singapore on June 16. Photo: Reuters

In South Korea, where the majority of the 52 million population has had at least one shot and is expected to reach 70% of two shots next month, strict restrictions in the Seoul area are still being extended.

“Even if we reach a higher vaccination rate, the return to normal life will be delayed if preventive measures are not maintained,” South Korean Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said last week.

However, authorities have allowed an increase in the number of people allowed to gather in groups from four to six, provided they are all vaccinated.

Yik-Ying Teo, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health in Singapore, said that with a cautious step-by-step reopening strategy, Asian countries will be able to control the outbreak and prevent mutations. as vaccination rates rise, despite the potential for some waves of infection.

“Until all countries achieve high vaccination rates, the world will continue to need to maintain some safety measures such as wearing masks and social distancing,” he said.

Thanh Tam (Follow WSJ)


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