Omicron is exposing an East-West divide between governments determined to halt the spread of the variant and those that see its spread as inevitable and even necessary.
While some Western countries are accepting the spread of Omicron as a step towards living with the virus, Asian economies are tightening borders and in-country restrictions to keep it at bay.
The diverging paths come amid a growing consensus that the variant is far less likely to cause serious illness and death than the Delta variant, despite spreading much faster than its predecessors, a characteristic that has nonetheless put pressure on hospitals and exacerbated shortages of healthcare workers.
Although many countries initially tightened their borders when the Omicron variant first emerged in November, authorities in Asia have shown little appetite for easing restrictions despite high vaccination rates and mounting evidence of Omicron’s lesser severity.
“Omicron is difficult to handle,” Kentaro Iwata, an infectious specialist expert at Kobe University, told Al Jazeera. “It is easy to spread, yet does not have a significant threat for the individual, mostly. However, if the denominator becomes too large to handle, then the numerator will be quite big too.”
In Hong Kong, which has followed mainland China’s strict “zero Covid” stance, authorities on Thursday banned flights from eight countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, doubling down on border restrictions that have turned the international financial centre into one of the world’s most isolated cities. Authorities also reimposed strict social distancing rules, including forcing bars and gyms to close and banning restaurant dining after 6 pm.
In mainland China, whose borders have been sealed throughout the pandemic, authorities in the city of Xian have imposed a harsh lockdown that has resulted in food shortages and reports of medical neglect, including of a woman who miscarried after being denied entry to a hospital.
South Korea, Thailand and Singapore have mandated quarantine for practically all international travellers since last month, while Japan has banned entry to all non-resident foreigners. South Korean authorities have also banned restaurants from operating after 9 pm until at least January 16, while three Japanese prefectures have requested Tokyo approve quasi-emergency measures that include restrictions on opening hours for restaurants and bars.
Jayant Menon, a visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told Al Jazeera “overreacting” to the virus could no longer be justified at this stage of the pandemic.
“Yet, we continue to see responses from governments that cannot be justified in any cost-benefit sense, even allowing for a broad margin of error,” Menon said.
“In developing countries, the cost of the continued restrictions on health outcomes, operating through loss of livelihoods and incomes, easily outweigh the direct effects of infection from a relatively impotent variant. Therefore, the only viable explanation for the continued restrictions is to try and preserve a limited healthcare system for those with the means to access it, should it become necessary. This approach is economically, socially, and morally bankrupt.”
Asia’s cautious stance stands in contrast with countries such as the US, the UK and Australia, where record-breaking case numbers are fueling perceptions that tightly controlling the variant is either practically impossible or not worth the economic and social costs.
In Australia, which implemented some of the harshest lockdowns and border controls earlier in the pandemic, Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday declared the “days of lockdown are gone.” State health officials in recent weeks have told the public to accept that everyone will get Omicron, although some authorities have reintroduced curbs to blunt surging cases, with New South Wales on Friday suspending elective surgeries and banning singing and dancing in hospitality venues.
Officials have also repeatedly relaxed testing and isolation rules to alleviate disruption to businesses and supply chains caused by record numbers of people testing positive for the virus.
In the UK, Boris Johnson on Wednesday expressed hope the country would “ride out” the current Omicron without further restrictions.