Countries face new global covid divide on opening up or staying closed

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For many countries, the hope is that the worst of the pandemic is over. Britain announced last week that it was planning the last of its domestic coronavirus rules — the legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive — by the end of the month, having already scrapped most measures for masks and vaccine passports.

In the United States, mask requirements have already come off in many states. In D.C., Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said Monday she would be dropping many of the requirements for masking and vaccines, sparking debate in a city where many take covid-19 extremely seriously.

In many countries, the number of new daily cases remains startlingly high. Globally, the average number of cases recorded each day remains more than double what it was at any point in 2020 and 2021. However, cases have fallen sharply in some areas where restrictions were lifted after the contagious Omicron Wave at the end.

That, combined with high levels of vaccination among the most vulnerable and the comparatively mild nature of the omicron variant, has led to a stark reevaluation of risks in this phase of the pandemic.

Are you interested in Danish Covid-19-deaths? Below, you can see information about deaths with Covid-19 (light) and deaths by Covid-19 (dark).
By = Covid-19 was the reason the person died.
With = The person had a positive PCR-test, but died of something other than Covid-19. https://t.co/3nySPEjkdv

— Statens Serum Inst. (@SSI_dk) February 14, 2022

Not all countries are on the same page. Restrictions remain a patchwork globally, as they have for most of the pandemic. One small nation, the Cook Islands is experiencing its first coronavirus cases.

“You can use measures, you can delay, and if there’s a new variant that’s potentially dangerous, you can get ready for the variant,” David Freedman, president-elect of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, told The Washington Post. “[But] you’re never going to keep it out.”

Though other countries have moved away from the idea of “zero covid” — an attempt to eliminate transmission with travel restrictions and domestic lockdowns — the ongoing Winter Olympics in Beijing are a reminder that many countries are not ready to loosen restrictions yet.

What’s happening in Hong Kong, meanwhile, may be evidence of what happens when zero covid breaks down. Recently experts have warned that an omicron wave hitting the city could overwhelm it, predicting new daily cases could reach nearly 30,000 by the end of March — far above previous outbreaks in the financial hub, which had avoided the number of cases seen in other megacities.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said this weekend it was “not an option to surrender to the virus,” with Hong Kong authorities moving toward the sort of strict lockdowns and restrictions seen in mainland Chinese cities. However, recent protests against Lam have made it clear that he is loyal to Beijing, despite Hong Kong being a democratic country. This would make the task even more difficult.

“Even just implementing such a measure would be virtually impossible due to a lack of manpower, and would risk inflaming tensions between the police and residents less than three years after protests pitted them against each other,” Bloomberg News’s Kari Soo Lindberg, Danny Lee and Shirley Zhao reported this week.

Widely diverging #covid19 policies in each country means that the eventual fate of the best performers can mirror outcomes in the laxest. The importance of global collaboration is evident. https://t.co/9gkfRNUDQL

— Amanda Glassman (@glassmanamanda) February 15, 2022

Some global health experts warn that the dichotomy of covid-19 experiences across the world means there is little agreement on how to handle it. World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday that some countries had grown complacent, even when new cases continue to spread globally.

“In some countries, high vaccine coverage, combined with the lower severity of omicron, is driving a false narrative that the pandemic is over,” Tedros said at a covid-19 Global Action Meeting convened by the United States. “At the same time, low vaccine coverage and low testing rates in other countries are creating the ideal conditions for new variants to emerge.”

By the WHO’s estimation, roughly 116 countries are likely to miss a target of vaccinating roughly 70 percent of the population by the middle of the year — leaving open the possibility that much of the world will still see the virus circulating and potentially mutating.

And even in countries that are highly vaccinated, the ill effects of the pandemic are still evident. On Monday, the Canadian government invoked the Emergencies Act, a never-before-used law that would grant federal authorities more powers to respond to self-styled “Freedom Convoy” blockades and demonstrations against vaccination mandates and other coronavirus restrictions.

The importance of trust in governments during the pandemic was made clear in a recent article published in the Lancet. As Danish researcher and government adviser Michael Bang Petersen recently put it in an op-ed for the New York Times, as the reality of the pandemic evolves, governments will have to carefully manage political divides about when to open up and when to put in place restrictions.

“Should new variants turn the presumed end (at least for Denmark) into a brief pause,” Bang Peterson wrote, political divides “next round with the virus even more difficult.”

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