‘Asia’s cautious approach to Omicron’

‘Asia’s cautious approach to Omicron’

Jeremy Youde

A divide is emerging between how the Asia Pacific region has responded to the Omicron wave of COVID-19, and how North American and Western European countries have responded.

If you were to visit the United States, you might be forgiven for thinking that the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Life in many parts of the country is seemingly back to normal. As the number of COVID-19 cases decreases across the United States and the Omicron wave peaks, states like California and New Jersey have removed some mask mandates. Anthony Fauci, the Chief Medical Advisor to the US President, has said that the United States is rapidly moving toward the endemic phase of COVID-19 and that many restrictions will be lifted.

By contrast, many countries in the Asia Pacific have maintained or even strengthened their COVID restrictions. Hong Kong banned most public activities and flights from eight countries. Throughout much of Japan, bars and restaurants serving alcohol are requested to close early, and the country announced that it would continue to bar nearly all foreign visitors until the end of February. Chinese officials placed the city of Xian, with its 13 million residents, under lockdown in late December after discovering a local cluster of more than 2000 cases, and the government also barred international spectators from attending the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Instead of seeing a global policy convergence in response to the Omicron surge and the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we see different parts of the world taking radically different approaches. North American and Western European governments seem largely to be moving back to ‘normal’ (or at least COVID-normal) operations, while governments in the Asia Pacific region have maintained or reintroduced strict measures designed to limit COVID-19’s spread internally. Those include limits on public gatherings, mandatory isolation periods, and restrictions (if not outright bans) on foreigners traveling to their countries.

The differences between these approaches stem from a variety of sources.

It is impossible to examine how Asia Pacific governments are responding to COVID-19 without considering their past experience with viral respiratory diseases. The SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003 ravaged a number of Asian countries. China, Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea and Thailand all faced severe consequences from the outbreak — either in the number of cases, or because of the devastating economic effects. South Korea also experienced an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) — a disease caused by a coronavirus like SARS and COVID-19 — in 2015, giving the government experience with containing this kind of epidemic. This experience not only informs these governments of the potential consequences of not responding to COVID-19 effectively, but may also contribute to the willingness of the populace to abide by restrictions.

The region has also been largely successful in keeping COVID-19 at bay. That is a powerful incentive to adapt policies in order to maintain that success. In some places, leaders may see their political survival as dependent upon limiting Omicron’s spread. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida won the top job after support for his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, collapsed in the wake of negative assessments of his COVID-19 response.

In addition, the Omicron surge has come to the Asia Pacific region later than in North America and Western Europe. This has provided those governments with an opportunity to see what has worked — and what has not — in other places. At the end of 2021, the Japanese government credited its reintroduction of COVID-19 restrictions as crucial in keeping cases down.

Finally, there is some evidence that the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines — which have been used extensively throughout the region — may provide less protection against Omicron than other vaccines. More than 30 countries in Asia initially either bought Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines or received them as donations as part of China’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’. But countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have stopped using these Chinese-made vaccines or offered boosters from other manufacturers due to concerns about their efficacy. The maintenance of COVID-19 restrictions is a way to provide an additional layer of protection to compensate for lower vaccine efficacy rates.

None of this is to say that the COVID-19 responses of governments around the Asia Pacific have been uniform or that there is no loosening of restrictions in certain countries. But the divergent experiences do lead to questions about why certain governments are more willing to increase restrictions in order to lower the number of COVID-19 cases. While there may be a tendency to ascribe the differences to cultural explanations (and there could be some validity to those), broader domestic and international political explanations need to be explored.

Jeremy Youde is an expert on global health politics and Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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