The regional picture . . .
Cases of COVID-19 are rising across Asia as the highly transmissible Omicron variant continues to spread and restrictions are met with increasing resistance from pandemic-weary populations. In India, which reported 168,000 new infections on Tuesday, many states have implemented curfews and closures even as large crowds are expected to gather at the Ganges river to take part in an annual Hindu religious ritual. South Korea is experiencing a record-breaking surge in new cases, including among members of the U.S. military stationed there. Japan is also dealing with a sharp rise in case counts and, amid rising anger over spikes in three regions where U.S bases are located, announced on Monday that the U.S. has agreed to impose restrictions on the off-base movement of U.S. forces.
Omicron exposes divergent strategies . . .
The spread of Omicron has exposed widely divergent strategies for the ongoing management of the pandemic. In Australia, which until recently was firmly committed to a strategy of ‘zero-COVID,’ Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the country will “push through” its latest skyrocketing surge in infections rather than return to a state of lockdown. In contrast, China, which will host the Winter Olympics in Beijing next month, is still maintaining a goal of eliminating the virus. A recent series of outbreaks has led to lockdowns in Xi’an, Yuzhou, and Anyang, as well as restrictions and mass testing in Tianjin, a port city close to Beijing.
Renewed push to vaccinate . . .
Despite causing milder illness, the high number of mutations possessed by the Omicron variant has led to an increase in breakthrough infections among the vaccinated. Thus, countries worldwide are racing to provide booster doses to increase protection. Although overall vaccination rates are high throughout much of Asia, the many Asian countries that relied on the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines supplied by China for the first two doses may be particularly vulnerable to breakthrough infections, as these vaccines have been shown to have lower efficacy against Omicron. The high demand for booster doses among wealthy countries may also exacerbate supply issues that continue to hamper vaccination efforts in many lower-income regions, including in Asia.