Endless pandemic? Omicron’s retreat to Asia shows COVID is political

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Hwaseong, South Korea – The rush of Asia-Pacific countries to close borders in response to the Omicron variant raised a sobering question: what if tough restrictions like travel bans never really end?
Scientists widely agree that the coronovirus will continue to mutate indefinitely, with new variants emerging periodically for the rest of our lives.

For those Asia-Pacific countries that have retreated into isolation despite high immunization coverage, this raises the prospect of an endless cycle of economically and socially damaging restrictions on travel and daily life – unless authorities do not change their thinking and do not learn to live with the virus.

An array of experts spanning virology, epidemiology, medical ethics and economics told Al Jazeera that the “end” of the pandemic as it affected the lives of most people would ultimately be a dead end. political and societal choice.

“Instead of walking like a zombie through whatever comes next… we probably need to stop and think about what we define as our end point here,” Ian Mackay, University of Queensland virologist, told Al Jazeera. .

“Right now we have a fairly well vaccinated population in some parts of the world. These parts of the world, especially those that have been newly vaccinated, are as safe as they will be. “

Mackay said that while he disagreed with the more laissez-faire approach taken by many Western countries in the early days of the pandemic, the response to Omicron looked like a comeback in 2020 where ” everything we talked about and thought we had under our belt just got thrown out the window and started over.

“My personal feeling is that we shouldn’t close the borders after this variant and after looking at it to see what the data tells us, unless this variant is really a lot worse than we think at first glance.” , did he declare. , adding that immunization of the poorest regions of the world remains essential.

Air travel in Asia-Pacific still down more than 90% from before the pandemic [File: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg]

While many countries around the world have banned arrivals from southern Africa, where the variant was first detected, Asia-Pacific economies that have reduced deaths with early border closures pandemic have gone further and introduced drastic restrictions on travel.

Japan last week banned all non-resident aliens, boosting Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s approval ratings, while Australia announced a pause in its planned reopening of borders to skilled migrants and international students.

Hong Kong, which has a strict “zero Covid” policy that has frustrated businesses and foreign residents, has banned travel for non-residents from three dozen countries and imposed 21 days of hotel quarantine for residents back. Mainland China has endured some of the most stringent border controls and national restrictions throughout the pandemic, with only citizens and residence permit holders allowed entry.

Malaysia and Singapore have delayed the introduction of a number of non-quarantine lanes, while South Korea has reintroduced 10 days of quarantine for all inbound travelers.

Even before Omicron, the Asia-Pacific region was largely closed to travel, with air traffic down nearly 93% in October from the same month in 2019, according to the International Air Transport Association, far more than other parts of the world.

The World Health Organization, which has named Omicron a “variant of concern”, has criticized the blanket travel bans, describing their role in preventing the spread of the virus as minimal compared to their “heavy burden on life. and means of subsistence ”.

Authorities stressed that too little is known about the variant to draw firm conclusions about its transmissibility, virulence or responsiveness to vaccines, although early data indicated that most cases are mild.

“Omicron is everywhere”

Roberto Bruzzone, co-director of the HKU-Pasteur research hub in Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera the reaction to Omicron was unwarranted based on the data available.

“I’ve been arguing for a change in perspective for quite a long time, saying that we have to learn to coexist with the new virus,” Bruzzone said.

Bruzzone said he hoped the region would not work in a future that would be permanently less open, free and interconnected.

“It would help if the EU, US, UK and the Americas tried to move the talk away from the so-called Asian approach – zero COVID, closed borders to foreigners, long quarantines for residents, etc. “, did he declare. “It’s because the virus will reappear every time you open the borders and even now Omicron is everywhere. “

Catherine Bennett, public health expert and epidemiologist at Deakin University in Melbourne, said divisions in public opinion and political calculations have created a “never-ending cycle” instead of the common ground needed to navigate the months ahead in a measured and secure manner.

Bennett said she was in favor of “increasing and decreasing public health safety measures when we have a signal that the virus can change, without slamming on the brakes.”

“It’s like a learner driver who stops every time he sees a pedestrian approaching a sidewalk, or a car stopping a little above the line at a crossroads,” he said. she declared.

Bennett said a realistic end point for severe restrictions could be when pandemic measures have become “so fluid and effective, that we are barely aware of the transitions between seasons and vaccines are able to catch up with the variants.”

World Health Organization slammed blanket travel bans [File: Laurent Gillieron/Reuters]

Alberto Giubilini, senior researcher at the Oxford Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics, told Al Jazeera that societies must make the choice to move beyond a state of “continuing emergency” which is more of a social phenomenon and cultural than a scientific reality.

“A pandemic ends when the virus becomes manageable and we learn to live with it,” Giubilini said. “But it depends more on how we act than on the virus itself. We continue to treat some things as if they are a scientific problem when they are not. Ending the pandemic is a process of political negotiation and, ultimately, an ethical question. The pandemic ends when we change our approach to a virus that is likely to stay with us forever. “

Giubilini said the companies never left the “emergency mode” they entered when they started imposing closures in March 2020.

“We have become numb to the enormity of the loss of freedom and the loss of a meaningful life,” he said. “We selectively focused on a single threat, which poses a serious risk to only a small, clearly identifiable fraction of the population. “

MacKay, the University of Queensland virologist, said pandemics are political in nature and returning to normal life would be an issue each country would tackle differently.

“You can’t separate science and politics and say that this question is that thing and that question is that thing,” he said. “Everything is political and scientific at the same time. It’s a mix and it’s a mess because they involve the population of the entire planet and if you have more than three people in a room you have politics.

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