Why countries with strong Covid-19 policies are now getting hammered.
By Umair Irfan Mar 18, 2022, 2:00pm EDT
Across the world, the omicron phase of the Covid-19 pandemic is now piling up towering case counts in places that have largely managed to keep the disease in check until this point. This troublingrise may signal that another wave of Covid-19 is rising in countries just coming out of their own omicron shadows, including the United States.
Hong Kong now reports the world’s highest death rate from the disease. Hospitals are overwhelmed and the surge is fueling a mental health crisis and leading to suicides, particularly among elderly residents.
Mainland China is also seeing major outbreaks in metropolises like Shenzhen and Shanghai, putting millions of people under lockdown and halting production in major international manufacturing centers. These outbreaks are testing China’s stomach for its zero-Covid approach to the pandemic, a costly but effective approach where entire cities grind to a halt to control outbreaks.
There are some common factors among these outbreaks. The biggest one is that the virus itself has changed. The mutations in the omicron variant of the virus that causes Covid-19, first detected in November 2021, make it the most contagious version of the virus known to date and allowed it to evade immunity — both from vaccines and from previous infections — better than other variants. Many of the earlier omicron waves were caused by a subvariant known as BA.1. Another omicron subvariant known as BA.2 is even more transmissible and is now driving a distinct spike in new cases.
However, there are also variables that make each of these outbreaks unique, namely how leaders in these regions deployed their public health strategies — testing, contact tracing, travel restrictions, vaccination — and when they relaxed them.
The good news is that most Covid-19 vaccines are just as protective against severe disease caused by BA.2 as they are against BA.1. And omicron causes a lower rate of hospitalizations and deaths among vaccinated people compared to other variants.
As the world enters the third year of the pandemic, these surges are a tough lesson about the perils of complacency. But for countries watching from afar that may be on the cusp of another round of infections, the latest series of outbreaks abroad also offer policy lessons on the best ways to dampen Covid-19’s worst effects.
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