After more than 20 months of strict border controls and restrictions on daily life, many countries in the region had tentatively started to relax and live with Covid – months after their European and North American counterparts had fully reopened .
But it only took a few days to change that.
Scientists in the United States say it will take at least two weeks to learn more about the impact of the variant on vaccine effectiveness and Covid treatments. While public health experts wait for the data, governments in the Asia-Pacific region are taking no chances. Many are acting quickly out of fear that the new Omicron variant will spread across their territories, even in places where border rules are already strict or vaccination rates high.
Experts say it’s understandable. But, they say countries may need to adjust their expectations for what life is like with Covid and improve vaccine equity as the virus becomes endemic.
“At first we thought we were living in this black and white world in terms of being able to live with or without Covid, but that choice is sort of going away with it becoming endemic,” said Renu Singh. , assistant research professor in Hong Kong. University of Science and Technology, which works on public health policy during Covid-19.
Some Asian countries delay reopening
In one of the strongest reactions to Omicron, Japan closed its borders to almost all non-nationals, including international students, business travelers, and people visiting their families.
Japan initially asked all airlines to suspend reservations – potentially blocking Japanese citizens overseas – but then canceled the request after complaints. Japanese citizens and foreign residents with re-entry permits are still generally allowed to re-enter Japan, according to the Foreign Ministry, although they will need to complete mandatory government quarantines in some countries.
The new rules come just weeks after Japan showed signs of opening up, reducing its mandatory quarantine for vaccinated business travelers from 10 to three days and lifting the curfew at bars and restaurants in the capital, Tokyo.
And Japan isn’t the only Asia-Pacific nation to cancel plans to ease restrictions.
Australia – which began reopening a month ago after more than a year of strict border controls – has delayed its plans to allow migrants and international students to enter the country by two weeks due to the Omicron concerns. It has also banned visitors from several southern African countries. In addition, some state governments are re-requiring international and interstate travelers to self-quarantine.
Even countries that relied on tourism and whose economies and populations have suffered badly from the depletion of tourism dollars are suspending plans to reopen. The Philippines, for example, has temporarily suspended plans to allow fully vaccinated international travelers to enter the country in response to Omicron.
Dr Jason Wang, professor of pediatrics and health policy at Stanford University, said reopening is a “dynamic process” that may force countries to quickly adjust their policies.
“What the pandemic has taught us is to balance life and livelihoods. It’s like the heart, we need both systole (contract) and diastole (relaxation) to keep the heart beating. Governments should apply restrictions when cases increase rapidly, but can relax when the infection rate drops, ”Wang said.
“The goal is to minimize the risk of infectious spread while still allowing movement,” he said. “We now have many finer tools to fight the pandemic. The travel ban is a big gun that should be used temporarily, not long term. “
Others wait and see
China is a country that is not making major changes amid the Omicron rush, likely due to the fact that its travel restrictions are already extremely tight and few foreigners can enter the country. Zhang Wenhong, an infectious disease expert in Shanghai, said the new variant would “not have a major impact on China at the moment.”
Singapore, which was one of the first Asia-Pacific countries to announce a plan to live with Covid, also seems to take a wait-and-see approach.
Although the city-state has banned all travelers from seven southern African countries, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung has compared Singapore’s situation after Omicron to a game of snakes and ladders.
“If Omicron is more infectious, more harmful, and the vaccines don’t work well against it, then we’ve stepped into the snake’s place, and we’ll go down, which will set us back a lot,” Ong said, adding that if Omicron is more contagious, but the symptoms are softer, the city-state “may even make a leap forward in our transition to life with Covid-19”.
Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said on December 1 that although border restrictions are Singapore’s first line of defense, the city-state cannot rely solely on them, so it would focus on increasing recalls of vaccines, among other measures.
Thailand, which abandoned long quarantines and reopened its borders to fully vaccinated international travelers from eligible countries on November 1, also said it would not back down on plans to reopen – despite restricting travelers from several countries. southern Africa.
“Nobody wants another border closure because it was really difficult for us to reopen the country,” Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said, according to the Bangkok Post. “Our economy is still suffering from the crisis, so there will be no more seals at the borders unless we are in a very critical situation. “
What the future holds
At present, public health expert Singh said countries were in a “fog of war” where there was a lot of uncertainty about the Omicron variant and they did not want to be caught off guard. if he escapes vaccines or causes serious illness.
“In a pandemic there is going to be uncertainty, but it is also risky to exaggerate a variant to the point that you could take an economic blow that you did not need is also risky. It’s risky for the economy, it’s risky for people, ”Singh said.
But on the other hand, lifting the “Freedom Day” restrictions is “reckless,” said Jeremy Lim, associate professor at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore (NUS).
“Progressive relaxation is the only way forward, monitoring vaccination and booster rates very carefully, especially among populations at risk, hospital capacity and number of cases. ”
This is what South Korea is trying to balance. The country eased restrictions on November 1 in a bid to “resume normal life” – but the reopening has coincided with an increase in Covid-19 cases and a record number of critical Covid patients.
Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said on Friday that South Korea would toughen up some of its virus-fighting measures, including limiting gatherings and forcing Covid tests and vaccines to enter restaurants and cafes . More than 83% of the population has received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, and 80.5% of the population is fully vaccinated. South Korean authorities have also decided to ban travelers from eight southern African countries.
Kwon Joon-wook, director of South Korea’s National Institute of Health, told CNN the country is trying to further increase vaccination rates and work on boosters, as well as a locally made vaccine that would reduce the need to depend on vaccine imports.
But, he said, mRNA vaccine patents were blocking progress in the use of locally grown vaccines.
The world could form immunity “together in a short period of time by delaying the patenting period of vaccines for a while and mass producing vaccines in countries capable of manufacturing to overcome the crisis,” Kwon said.
That’s the catch, Singh said.
“Border control is just one piece,” she said. “If we are serious about seeing an end to these bans, and more certainty, at least in terms of what the ups and downs might be, vaccinations are key. And getting them to everyone is equally important. “
“How do we end this? How do we stop having this conversation? I really think it’s about vaccines. I really think it’s about vaccine equity. “
CNN’s Paula Hancocks and Gawon Bae in Seoul, Junko Ogura in Tokyo, and Cheryl Ho and Lizzy Yee in Hong Kong have contributed.