Flush with vaccines, Asia sees return to normal slip out of reach

The region faces questions about the pandemic end goal as authorities maintain restrictions despite peaking vaccination rates.

Asia-Pacific countries are sticking with or reimposing restrictions despite world-leading vaccination rates [File: Heo Ran/Reuters]

Hwaseong, South Korea – COVID-19 vaccines promised to be the Asia-Pacific’s ticket to returning to normal life.

Nearly a year after the jabs arrived, life across the region is far from normal, as authorities continue to restrict freedoms, particularly when it comes to travel, despite peaking vaccination rates.

The sobering reality, which has been underscored by the emergence of the Omicron variant, raises questions about the region’s end goal in fighting a virus that scientists broadly agree will exist and mutate for the rest of our lives.

Authorities’ failure to stick with pledges to live with COVID-19 despite world-leading vaccination rates raises the spectre of never-ending restrictions – and a region that is permanently less free and interconnected – unless societies can learn to adapt to higher rates of disease.

“It looks like the whole world overheated and is no longer able to address the pandemic, which is a serious issue, in a more balanced way,” Roberto Bruzzone, co-director of the HKU-Pasteur Research Pole in Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera, arguing that societies had no choice but to co-exist with the virus.

“Yet we need to vaccinate, adapt vaccines, as we do for influenza, and carry on.”

“The real preparedness is not to impose lockdowns, masks outdoors, but make sure that the health system can cope with surges in medical demands, regardless of the nature of the disease,” Bruzzone said.

International travel has ground to a halt in Asia during the pandemic [File: Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg]

While China enforces a draconian “zero Covid” policy that has shut down practically all travel, countries including Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore continue to tightly control their borders despite vaccination rates of approximately 80 percent.

Air traffic in the Asia-Pacific, much of which has avoided the levels of death and disease seen in Europe and North America, was still down nearly 93 percent in October compared with before the pandemic, according to the International Air Transport Association, a far steeper decline than other parts of the world.

Some Asia-Pacific countries have also held onto or reintroduced significant domestic restrictions to control the virus.

South Korea, which has vaccinated more than 80 percent of the total population, on Thursday announced the reintroduction of a 9pm curfew for restaurants, cafes and bars and a ban on private gatherings of more than four people amid a record surge in COVID-19 cases.

Malaysia, where 79 percent of the population is double vaccinated, also announced new restrictions, including a ban on mass gatherings.

In neighbouring Singapore, one of the first countries to pledge to live with the virus with an 83 percent vaccination rate, authorities continue to restrict social gatherings and dining groups to five people, and limit the number of visitors households can receive each day.

Khoo Ying Hooi, a senior lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies at the University of Malaya, told Al Jazeera the response to the pandemic raised concerns about human rights and democracy, although she believed a “more concerning question is the issue of bread and butter for the people who lost their jobs when the economy suffered”.

“Perhaps there is a need to move on, but this requires the countries in Asia to have the capacity to cope with cases when it happens, as vaccination does not guarantee zero COVID,” she said.

Jayant Menon, a visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told Al Jazeera he expected some restrictions to last longer than justified by public health concerns.

“The pandemic has fuelled a rise in nationalism and protectionism that will make the dismantling of barriers to labour mobility more difficult,” Menon said. “Calls for reshoring in the name of increasing resilience of supply chains is the latest version of new protectionism.”

‘Unprepared health systems’

Although vaccines have greatly reduced severe illness and deaths, they have failed to prevent COVID-19 cases from surging to new highs in many countries, putting pressure on health services and prompting authorities to roll out booster shots to top up waning immunity.

The emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, although so far associated with fewer deaths than past waves in South Africa, has given authorities further rationale to double down on restrictions or reverse steps towards reopening.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus earlier this week warned the variant was spreading at an unprecedented rate and the “sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems” despite reports of overwhelmingly mild illness in South Africa.

Gigi Foster, an economics professor at the University of New South Wales who has been highly critical of pandemic restrictions, told Al Jazeera little had changed during the last year due to a pandemic narrative perpetrated by politicians and media.

“A year ago we were seeing broadly similar positions around the world as we are seeing today,” said Foster, who expressed concern about societies sleepwalking into permanent restrictions after “self-immolating” during the past two years.

“Populations today, a year on, are still caught up in the web of the COVID crowd narrative and their politicians are drunk on power and increasingly unable to see a way to avoid the furious condemnation that would come down upon their heads if their stewardship during this period comes to be recognised as having been dramatically off-track.”

Cho Sung-il, a professor of epidemiology at Seoul National University, told Al Jazeera Asia-Pacific countries reliant on trade and the free movement of people may need to seek out technological solutions to balance public health and the economy.

“During the transition to a new normal, many economic sectors, not only jobs, will be replaced by new ones,” said Cho, suggesting advances in quantum computing and artificial intelligence could allow societies to thrive while being “physically less open”. “Many people will suffer, with widening disparities. Governments will struggle to mitigate this suffering.”

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, told Al Jazeera political leaders in the region were cautious due to the experience of countries such as the United States, where more than 800,000 people have died, while policies were “being improvised to deal with a pandemic as we learn more about it”.

But he said imposing restrictions for so long could have long-term and unforeseen consequences.

“Anyone who recalls travel pre-9/11 understands that there is no going back to the looser security procedures and everyone has gotten used to greater scrutiny and hassles if they want to travel,” Kingston said.

“I worry that governments are running out of financial ammo and are taking on heavy debt loads and that will imperil recovery, and programs to cushion adjustments. The pandemic has had uneven consequences within nations and between them, exacerbating inequalities that are potentially very disruptive.”

Source: Al Jazeera