Omicron Edition casts shadow on Asia’s reopening

Air-conditioned buses left Singapore shortly after sunrise on Monday, carrying passengers for the first time in 21 months to Malaysia, one of the world’s busiest border crossings before the pandemic.

The launch of LINK on Monday marked another major step towards reopening Singapore and bidding for “Live with COVID-19” — but it came amid sudden and growing concerns that the Omicron variant could stall the region’s recovery.

Singapore, like much of Asia, has been far more cautious than the West when it comes to loosening border controls and loosening social restrictions. You won’t find crowded concert venues and packed sports stadiums here. It’s nearly impossible to spot someone flouting mask requirements. The spread of a more contagious new variant will almost certainly trigger a return to measures that could lead to the cancellation of travel agreements with Malaysia.

“We must be prepared for more obstacles down the road,” Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned at a political conference on Sunday. “We’re not sure yet, but before we can take any more steps forward, we may be forced to take a few steps back.”

Countries around the world are already sealing their borders to travelers from South Africa, including Singapore, where Omicron was first detected, and other countries where the variant has spread. Japan on Monday joined Israel as the only two countries to ban the entry of all foreigners. The Philippines postponed a program that would have allowed some vaccinated foreign visitors, and Australia and India said they would review plans to ease border restrictions.

Australia, Austria, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy and Australia have reported cases of a variant showing early signs of greater resistance to infection or immunity to vaccines. Netherlands. Portugal announced on Monday that 13 omicron cases have been detected among members of a local soccer team. No cases have yet been confirmed in the United States.

US health officials said it would take two weeks for scientists to determine the threat level of the Omicron variant. The risk may be increased with the arrival of winter, when people spend more time indoors, giving the virus more opportunity to spread.

The specter of new lockdowns and travel restrictions stirred stock markets in Asia on Monday as investors tried to assess the impact of the emerging variant on a continent that generates 40% of the world’s GDP.

Japan, which began allowing limited entry for foreigners on November 8, announced that it would reverse those measures and stop accepting newly arrived foreign nationals starting Tuesday, citing the version. Will give (Foreigners with previously issued visas can still return to Japan.) The country maintained strict border controls during most of the pandemic and has seen infections hit nearly 100 per day, down from a peak of more than 25,000 in August recently. .

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the move was intended to prevent a “worst-case scenario”, calling it only “a temporary measure”, until more is known about the new version. He said Japan was analyzing the case of an arrival from Namibia, who tested positive for COVID-19, to determine whether the passenger was infected with the Omicron variant.

The blanket ban comes three weeks after Japan issued a limited number of short-term visas to students, business travelers and work apprentices while keeping tourists out. Officials were discussing allowing strictly monitored and controlled group visits, measures that will likely be postponed as border restrictions tighten.

Japan began requiring special quarantine and testing for arrivals from some African countries over the weekend.

South Korea was also quick to ban the entry of foreigners from eight African countries, including South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. The country said migrant workers entering the country would be further screened for travel to the region. Despite a high vaccination rate of around 80%, South Korea has recently seen some of its highest levels of infections since the start of the pandemic, driven mainly by the spread of the delta variant, when the country imposed restrictions on social gatherings. Restrictions were eased. November 1st.

South Korea has never closed its borders during the pandemic, but has relied on strict quarantines for those arriving from overseas.

Asia’s largest country and economy, China, has not announced any immediate changes due to the Omicron version – mostly because its zero-COVID strategy already imposes some of the strictest entry restrictions in the world.

Travel from southern Africa to China has been strictly controlled. Those who had a residence permit or visa before the pandemic have not been able to enter them since March 2020. Only a small number of persons entering for diplomatic and work or family reunions are able to obtain fresh entry visas from abroad. on a case-by-case basis.

Getting a visa is only half the battle. enter china Is necessary A series of stringent measures that include self-isolation for two weeks before boarding the plane and at least two weeks of quarantine upon arrival – three if you are traveling to Beijing or returning to the university campus.

attitude has been criticized To be harsh by some, but if Omicron turns into a crippling worldwide outbreak, Chinese policymakers will probably feel doubly excited.

“China’s rapid response and current strategy of zero-COVID can take all kinds of coronavirus variants,” Zhang Wenhong, a leading doctor in charge of the COVID response in Shanghai, wrote on Weibo. “We can handle Delta, and we can handle Omicron as well.”

The same cannot be said for other countries in the region. India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand have each struggled to contain the coronavirus and could sicken a COVID-19 resurgence given the fragility of their economic recovery and mostly low vaccination rates. And while Vietnam, Cambodia and Taiwan have handled the pandemic relatively well, none are re-testing.

Singapore, as is often the case, comes across as an anomaly given its small size and deep pockets. Seventy-five percent of its 5.4 million residents are fully vaccinated. The city-state opening up and tolerance for some level of infection and death is being seen as a countermeasure to Hong Kong, its longtime corporate and financial rival, which has been adhering to China’s zero-COVID strategy. needed.

Until the government introduced so-called vaccination travel lanes with a handful of countries starting in September, Singaporeans faced expensive, two-week quarantines in designated hotels upon their return from overseas. Now, many residents are flocking to Changi Airport, who are no longer limited to stays and “cruises to nowhere”.

Amanda Tann felt pangs of jealousy when a friend told her about a recent trip to Germany, where she went mask-free one day in a beer garden – a trip that stems from the German government imposing new restrictions this month. Happened earlier. increase in infection. Tan plans to enjoy the much-needed weeklong vacation when she flies to London on Wednesday, the first time abroad in more than two years.

“I want to move out of Singapore for a while,” said Tan, 36, who works at an online marketing agency. “Singapore has been very strict with a lot of mandates, and they kept going back and forth with the rules.”

Tan said she’s packing an industrial-grade face mask and rapid antigen test kit — the necessary precautions for what could be her last chance to travel for some time if the Omicron version proves to be as disastrous as the Delta version . In addition, the UK itself, on the new coronavirus strain, has just announced that, from Tuesday, all incoming passengers will begin requiring PCR tests within 48 hours of arrival.

Emily Chiang, owner of a nail salon in the heart of Singapore’s main shopping district, said the rise of Omicron has clouded what should be a day of celebration for residents of Singapore with Malaysia, and has since Has not gone to Malaysia to visit her ailing mother. His mother had suffered a stroke a year earlier.

“I’m so happy for my friends, who now get a chance to travel home,” said 42-year-old Chiang, who looks forward to the end of her peak business season after Chinese New Year in February. So that makes traveling in Singapore one of the connecting reasons. Malaysia. “A lot of Malaysian families are separated because the parents have to live in Singapore to earn money.”

The introduction of quarantine-free travel, which includes flights across the Strait of Johor, reopens a lifeline for two countries that are inextricably linked economically and culturally. Chiang, however, can’t help but worry that progress will be fleeting. If Omicron crashes into Singapore and overwhelms the country’s hospitals, the government will again order businesses to close and residents indoors.

If that happens, he will have no chance of keeping his salon open, as his savings have already run out.

“I won’t be able to survive,” said Chiang, who is urging her Malaysian staff to still make trips home. “Even when I talk to my clients, I can tell that everyone is stressed. They are worried about the new virus. They don’t want to do it all over again.”

Pearson reported from Singapore, Kim from Seoul and Su from Beijing.

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