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World wrap as more countries easing COVID-19 restrictions


Late-night disco partying. Elbow-to-elbow seating in movie theatres. Mask-free bearing of faces in public, especially in Europe and North America: Bit by bit, many countries that have been hard-hit by the coronavirus are opening up and easing their tough, and often unpopular, restrictive measures aimed to fight COVID-19 even as the Omicron variant — deemed less severe — has caused cases to skyrocket.

The early moves to relax such restrictions evoke a new turning point in a nearly two-year pandemic that has been full of them.

People out socialising in Temple Bar in Dublin city centre late into the evening following the easing of coronavirus restrictions across Ireland, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022.
Bit by bit, many countries that have been hard-hit by the coronavirus are opening up and easing their tough, and often unpopular, restrictive measures (Damien Storan/PA via AP)

WHO acknowledges some countries can judiciously consider easing the rules if they boast high immunity rates, strong health care systems and favourable epidemiological curves.

Omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than the previous Delta variant, according to studies. Omicron spreads even more easily than other coronavirus strains, and has already become dominant in many countries. It also more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or had previously been infected by prior versions of the virus.

But the UN health agency, ever leery about how a virus still spreading widely might evolve, warned about underestimating Omicron.

WHO has long spoken about a lag time between when cases are reported and a subsequent impact on the death toll. Late Tuesday, it said reported new cases worldwide from January 24-30 were similar to the level of the previous week, but the number of new deaths increased by 9 per cent — to a total of more than 59,000. More than 370 million cases and over 5.6 million deaths linked to COVID-19 have been reported worldwide.

Workers walk over London Bridge towards the City of London financial district during the morning rush hour, in London, Monday, January 24, 2022.
England ended almost all domestic restrictions: Masks aren’t required in public and vaccine passes are no longer needed to get into events or other public venues, while the work-from-home order has been lifted (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

The most pronounced pullbacks are popping up in Europe, for many months the world’s epicentre of the pandemic, as well as in South Africa — where Omicron was first announced publicly — and the United States, which has tallied both the most cases and deaths from COVID-19 of any single country.

In the US, local leaders have served up a hodgepodge of responses. The city of Denver is ending requirements for proof of vaccination and mask rules for businesses and public spaces, while keeping them for schools and public transportation.

New York’s governor plans in the next week to review whether to keep the state’s mask mandate at a time when cases and hospitalisations have plummeted in the early Omicron hotspot. New York City is averaging 4,200 cases a day, compared with 41,000 during the first week of January.

The US as a whole is on a similar trajectory, with infections plunging from an average of over 800,000 a day a little more than two weeks ago to 430,000 this week.

England, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and several Nordic countries have taken steps to end or ease their COVID-19 restrictions.

In some places, like Norway and Denmark, the easing comes even though case counts are still hovering near their highs. Some governments are essentially betting that the pandemic is ebbing.

“Rest assured that the worst days are behind us,” said Health Minister Fahrettin Koca of Turkey, where the number of daily infections topped 100,000 on Tuesday, the highest on record in the country of over 80 million.

Last week, England ended almost all domestic restrictions: Masks aren’t required in public and vaccine passes are no longer needed to get into events or other public venues, while the work-from-home order has been lifted. One lingering condition: Those who test positive still have to self-isolate.

Passengers at a bus stop in Copenhagen, Denmark, Tuesday, February 1, 2022.
The UN health agency, ever leery about how a virus still spreading widely might evolve, warned about underestimating Omicron (Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix via AP)

On Tuesday, Norway lifted its ban on serving alcohol after 11pm and the cap on private gatherings to no more than 10 people. Travellers arriving at the border no longer will be required to take a COVID-19 test before entry. People can sit elbow-to-elbow again at events with fixed seating, and sports events can take place as they did in pre-pandemic times.

“Now it’s time for us to take back our everyday life,” Norwegian Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol said Tuesday. “Tonight, we scrap most measures so we can be closer to living a normal life.”

The loosening of Omicron’s grip in many places has given rise to hope that the outbreak is about to enter a new phase in which the virus will become, like the flu, a persistent but generally manageable threat that people can live with.

Switzerland on Wednesday scrapped work-at-home and quarantine requirements and announced plans for an easing of other restrictions in coming weeks, saying: “Despite record high infection figures, hospitals have not been overburdened and the occupancy of intensive care units has fallen further.”

“There are increasing signs that the acute crisis will soon be over and the endemic phase could begin,” the government said.

Omicron, the Geneva-based World Health Organisation says, has fuelled more cases — 90 million — in the world over the last 10 weeks than during all of 2020 (AP)

While Omicron has proved less likely to cause severe illness than the Delta variant, experts are warning people against underestimating it or letting their guard down against the possibility of new, more dangerous mutant varieties.

“We are concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines — and because of omicron’s high transmissibility and lower severity — preventing transmission is no longer possible and no longer necessary,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Gheybreysus said Tuesday. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

WHO’s emergencies chief, Dr. Michael Ryan, warned that political pressure could lead some countries to open back up too soon — and “that will result in unnecessary transmission, unnecessary severe disease and unnecessary death.”

Noerreport Metrostation in Copenhagen Denmark on February 1, 2022 - the first day of Denmarks being without covid-19 restrictions.
Noerreport Metrostation in Copenhagen Denmark on February 1, 2022 – the first day of Denmarks being without covid-19 restrictions. (Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix)

As throughout the pandemic, many countries are going their own way: Italy has tightened its health pass requirements during the Omicron surge. From Monday, its government requires at least a negative test within the previous 48 hours to enter banks and post offices, and anyone over age 50 who hasn’t been vaccinated risks a €100 ($159) fine.

Austria, which was the first European country to order a vaccine mandate, is planning to loosen other COVID-19 restrictions this month and take steps like letting restaurants stay open later. Greece has ordered fines for people 60 and over who refuse to get vaccinated.

In Germany, where infections are still hitting daily records and officials are still concerned about a large number of unvaccinated older people, restrictions like curbs on private gatherings and requirements for people to show proof of vaccination or recovery to enter nonessential shops remain in place. The country’s leaders plan to review the situation on February 16.

“I think that the moment we have the feeling that we can loosen (restrictions) responsibly, federal and state governments will take that step,” German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said Monday. “But at the moment, it is still a bit premature.”

Tonga has announced a coronavirus lockdown following new community cases. It’s not yet known if they are linked to the arrival of relief supplies. (Australian Defence Force) (AP)

Other continents are being even more cautious. Some of the world’s highest vaccination rates are found in Asia — which is no stranger to earlier outbreaks like SARS and MERS — and its leaders are holding to stricter lockdown measures or even tightening them, for now.

The Pacific Rim nation of Tonga was entering a lockdown Wednesday evening after finding coronavirus infections in two port workers helping distribute aid arriving after a volcanic eruption and tsunami. That came against fears that the fallout from the natural disaster last month could spark a second disaster by bringing the pandemic into a nation that had been virus-free.

On the eve of hosting the Winter Olympics, China was sticking to its formal zero-COVID-19 policy even as 85 per cent of its population is fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data figures. Beijing imposes strict lockdowns and quarantines quickly when any cases are detected, and continue to require people to wear masks on public transportation and show with “green” status on a health app to enter most restaurants and stores.

On the eve of hosting the Winter Olympics, China was sticking to its formal zero-COVID-19 policy even as 85 per cent of its population is fully vaccinated (Getty)

Thailand, where 69 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, continues to require masks be worn in public and enforces social distancing, as well as other restrictions.

Singapore, which boasts Asia’s highest rate of vaccination with 87 per cent with at least two shots, is maintaining its restrictions even as it heads along a “transition journey to a COVID-19 resilient nation” begun in August, with steps to both relax and tighten rules as conditions warrant.

With nearly 80 per cent of its people fully vaccinated, Japan has resisted mandated restrictions but continues exhorting the public to wear face masks and observe social distancing practices, while requesting restaurants to shorten opening hours.

Cambodia, with 81 per cent of its people vaccinated, has dropped restrictions on restaurants and other businesses but still requires masks to be work in public and encourages social distancing.

South Africa this week announced that it has exited the fourth wave, saying scientific studies show immunity has hit 60 per cent to 80 per cent. Masks are still mandatory, but a curfew has been lifted and schools are required to fully – not just partially — open for the first time since March 2020.

Dr. Atiya Mosam of the Public Health Association of South Africa said such steps are a “practical move towards acknowledging that COVID-19 is here to stay, even though we might have a milder strain.”

“We are acknowledging how transmission occurs, while basically balancing people’s need to live their lives,” Mosam said.



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