Asia-Pacific policy on virus diverges
NEW YORK — As coronavirus cases surge across the Asia-Pacific region, countries that were once similarly stringent in their virus control measures are taking drastically divergent paths with the pandemic now in its third year.
In mainland China and Hong Kong, the spike in cases has led to clampdowns reminiscent of the early days of the virus’s spread. On the mainland, production lines have been halted, malls and convention centres have closed, travel has been cut off between cities, and the authorities are attempting to test entire cities for the virus. In Hong Kong, new quarantine centres are being built, and grocery store shelves have emptied.
Much of the rest of the region, however, has stayed the course in easing social restrictions and border controls, following in the steps of the United States and Europe, where normal life has mostly resumed despite continuing deaths and infections.
Australia, which reopened to vaccinated tourists last month, said this week that it would lift a two-year ban on cruise ships, and some states have eased masking requirements. South Korea has stopped mandating QR-code check-ins at restaurants and businesses and has discontinued efforts to trace the contacts of each positive case. Next week, the country is scrapping quarantine requirements for incoming travellers.
Japan, which has maintained some of the tightest entry barriers, is also considering removing quarantine requirements for foreign businesspeople and students. More Southeast Asian countries are admitting tourists, although travellers were frustrated with unclear guidelines on quarantines and testing.
The shift throughout much of Asia, which has come as vaccinations have become widespread and the omicron variant has thwarted many control measures, is a marked contrast to the first two years of the pandemic. Over that period, the cautious, restrictive approach prevalent in Asia kept infection rates and deaths far lower than in the West.
Now, the region is seeing some of the world’s steepest spikes in cases. South Korea and Vietnam are logging record daily infections, while China is being plagued by outbreaks in two-thirds of its provinces, with case levels the highest they have been since the initial outbreak in Wuhan.
China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are maintaining a “zero Covid” approach, attempting to stamp out outbreaks as they happen and doubling down on the drastic measures that have been the mainstay of their governments’ coronavirus responses.
China has restricted 24 million residents in the north-eastern province of Jilin from moving between cities or leaving the region. And the Chinese government remains concerned about lagging vaccination rates among older people, who are most at risk of death from the virus.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.