They repel the virus (over and over and over again)

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HONG KONG – First, it was travelers and university students who brought the coronavirus back to Hong Kong from Europe and the United States. Then it is sea crews and bar patrons who spread the infections.

In the latest wave, a large group seems to have started in ballroom dance halls that are popular with older women, then progressed to other banquet-style dance halls and restaurants.

For much of the year, whenever Hong Kong fought off an outbreak of coronavirus cases, new problems arose weeks later, in other places and among other populations.

Similar patterns are valid in other parts of Asia which still wage daily battles to prevent their Covid-19 levels from spiraling out of control. And the latest waves of infection are proving more difficult to trace than previous ones – just as winter forces more people indoors and increases the risk of transmission.

Japan and South Korea are experiencing some of their highest overnight rates since the start of the pandemic, mostly due to diffuse clusters in metropolitan areas of Tokyo and Seoul. Although still below its peak of the year, Hong Kong is facing a surge comparable to its summer wave, driven in large part by what experts call untraceable “silent” transmissions.

“We are improving to have a great testing capacity, and we have a lot of resources for contact tracing, but the cycle is repeating itself,” said Kwok Kin-on, epidemiologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Compared to the United States and Europe, much of East Asia still has the virus relatively under control. Hong Kong, with a population of around 7.5 million, has recorded a total of 5,947 cases and 108 deaths, a low rate for all cities.

But recent setbacks underscore the challenges the world will continue to face until a widely available vaccine becomes available. As cases have returned to alarming levels in recent weeks, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong have had to quickly recalibrate their strategies.

The travel bubbles announced with great fanfare are now pending. A few weeks after the reopening, the schools were again closed. Bars and restaurants close early or adopt take-out menus.

“We need solidarity in this kind of situation, but as everyone knows, it is not easy,” said Dr Kim Woo-joo, infectious disease specialist at Korea University in Seoul.

The nature of the current outbreaks complicates their efforts. Transmission occurs not only in crowded places like nightclubs, but also in environments like homes and workplaces where governments have fewer options to control people’s behavior.

South Korea on Thursday recorded more than 500 new cases for the first time in about eight months. Experts say there doesn’t appear to be a single major group, as was the case when churches and anti-government protests sparked earlier outbreaks.

Pandemic fatigue didn’t help. Medical staff are exhausted, young people are bored because they can’t travel, and business owners are frustrated because they have to downsize or close early.

Kim Ill-soon, who owns a tea shop in a residential area of ​​Seoul, said his business had given up after the government this week banned people from living in cafes. Take out is always an option, but for many people chatting over tea in person is part of the draw.

“I apologized to my clients for two days,” she said.

In Japan, authorities report around 2,000 infections a day. Cases are spreading rapidly in Tokyo, which reported a record 570 infections on Friday, and around Osaka, Sapporo and other cities. Compared to the summer waves, which mainly affect young people, the current wave has hit many people in their 40s and over.

In a sign of the country’s alarm bells, the Imperial Household of Japan Agency said on Friday that it had decided to cancel Emperor Naruhito’s annual New Years event at the Imperial Palace in January – the first cancellation of this genre since 1990, when the country mourned the death of his grandfather.

“Please do not underestimate the coronavirus,” Dr Toshio Nakagawa, president of the Japanese Medical Association, said in Tokyo on Wednesday. “We cannot let Japan become like the United States or Europe.”

The hope is that coronavirus vaccines will soon give health officials around the world a new weapon to beat the pandemic. But they won’t be widely available until spring at the earliest.

Until then, and as winter approaches and the number of cases skyrockets, medical officials across much of East Asia are arguing for vigilance – and rethinking their pandemic policies .

In spring and summer, the main emphasis was on controlling the clusters at their source. Officials in Tokyo and Seoul, for example, responded to those that had mainly spread to nightclubs by temporarily closing venues. Hong Kong has placed restrictions on maritime crews after a group was traced to freighters.

This time around, officials appear determined to take a more nuanced approach, apparently motivated by concerns about the economic disaster the pandemic has already caused. But dealing with such a pernicious pathogen can open up new challenges.

Hong Kong is rolling out a new contact tracing app that would allow people to voluntarily scan QR codes on their smartphones when visiting a location, enabling managers to better tackle emerging clusters. But these apps have had limited success in South Korea, Britain and elsewhere.

It can be difficult to persuade many people to download the app unless the government provides more details on how personal information will be analyzed. The issue of data privacy is particularly sensitive in Hong Kong as the Chinese government has tightened its grip on the territory.

“Hong Kong people are the most proactive in protecting themselves and their families, but they need to see proof of how the application will benefit them and guarantee their privacy,” said Leung Chi-chiu, specialist Respirator from the Hong Kong Medical Association.

The latest waves of infection have also forced governments to slow down their attempts to open up.

Hong Kong people have been rushing to buy plane tickets to take advantage of a planned travel bubble with Singapore, even before details were fully known. The special flights would have enabled residents of both locations to avoid 14-day quarantines on arrival.

The travel bubble was due to start this week. Then, Hong Kong cases increased, and officials postponed the start to December 6.

In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga slashed an estimated $ 16 billion campaign to encourage domestic tourism during the pandemic. But he hasn’t given it up entirely, saying it helps support local economies.

For people like Noriko Hashida, who sells cosmetics in Osaka, taking a vacation last week with eight of her co-workers was worth the risk of infection.

Ms Hashida said a government tourism subsidy allowed them to venture into a luxury hotel that would normally have been out of their price range. “We enjoyed it so much,” she says.

Still, they decided to cancel a sightseeing tour of the island because the optics were a bit awkward.

“We thought local residents wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing visitors from Osaka, where infections spread quickly,” she said.

Mike Ives and Tiffany May reported from Hong Kong and Makiko Inoue from Tokyo. Youmi Kim contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea.

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