As the global death toll caused by the protracted Covid pandemic topped four million last Thursday, Japan formally decided to put Tokyo under a state of emergency through Aug 22. And Olympic organisers bowed to the inevitable, saying the Tokyo Games would be closed to spectators.
The emergency declaration, which takes effect today, is aimed at curbing new infections in the capital where 920 cases were found last Wednesday, the most since mid-May. It came just two weeks before the start of the Tokyo Olympics, which will be the first ever Games held behind closed doors when they begin on July 23.
Olympic organisers had previously decided to ban spectators from abroad and capped attendance by locals at 50% of a venue’s capacity, or a maximum of 10,000 people. But even that is no longer tenable, they now concede.
While Japan has so far experienced a relatively small virus outbreak, with around 14,900 deaths so far, just over 15% of the population is fully vaccinated, and there are concerns that the Delta variant could produce a new wave that could quickly overwhelm local medical resources.
The Covid situation is also critical outside Japan. Here in Thailand, the first country outside China to report an infection, the outbreak is raging on, with new daily cases passing 9,000 last Friday and deaths exceeding 70 for a second straight day.
The sharp increase, which is expected to hit 10,000 daily infections this week, prompted the national Covid task force on Friday to order a more comprehensive lockdown of the 10 worst-hit provinces, including Bangkok.
The push for tighter curbs threatens to derail Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s pledge to fully reopen the country by mid-October to revive the reeling tourism sector. The premier himself is now in self-isolation after coming into contact with a Surin businessman who later tested positive at the Phuket Sandbox opening on July 1.
A slow vaccination drive has hampered efforts to contain the virus spread. The country so far has administered 11.6 million shots, but only 3.1 million of those — or 4.5% of the population — are second doses, ranking the country 120th in terms of the proportion of fully vaccinated residents.
In Sydney, the Delta-strain outbreak has reached a record daily high since it started in mid-June. Authorities are rushing 300,000 vaccine doses to Australia’s most populous city, now in its third week of lockdown.
South Korea, once hailed — along with Thailand — as a Covid response model, reported nearly 1,300 new infections, the highest since the pandemic began, on Thursday. Authorities have imposed the highest level of restrictions short of a lockdown, with all public events banned for the next two weeks.
In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City has gone into lockdown, and the Southeast Asian Games that were due to be held in Hanoi later this year have been postponed to 2022. Indonesia, meanwhile, has become a global hotspot. With death rates rising tenfold in a month to more than 1,000 last Wednesday, hospitals have been pushed to the brink.
The growing threat fuelled by the more contagious Delta variant has prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to warn governments, even in countries with high vaccination rates, against easing coronavirus restrictions and “relaxing as if the pandemic is already over”.
The prolonged pandemic could push countries to rethink their tourism strategy. Indonesia, for example, has postponed plans to open Bali to foreign tourists until Covid cases have decreased significantly.
On the other hand, some Asian countries are starting to frame Covid as a disease that needs to be managed rather than stamped out. Singapore Finance Minister Lawrence Wong told parliament last week that while the virus is unlikely to go away anytime soon, with rising vaccination rates and improving treatments mean it can be thought of “more like influenza”.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, meanwhile, is considering opening the on-again, off-again travel bubble with Singapore, but with inoculation as a precondition for participating on both sides.
However, safety must be the main guiding principle of every policy being planned or implemented. I would agree when some say that we have to learn to live with the pandemic, which could last another year or more, but even medical experts have cautioned that making assumptions that transmission will not rise because of vaccines is a false assumption.
Proceeding with extreme caution as countries lift public health and social measures is vital, otherwise negative consequences may follow unavoidably.