Southeast Asia sees an increase in Covid cases as the Delta variant rips through the region

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Several Asia-Pacific countries experiencing their first major wave of the coronavirus rushed to impose severe restrictions, a year and a half into a pandemic that many initially endured well.

Faced with the rapidly rising number of infections in recent months, authorities in countries such as Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam announced or imposed measures on Friday that they hope can slow the spread before healthcare systems become overwhelmed.

It is a rhythm well known in much of the world, where repeated floods inundated hospitals and led to large numbers of deaths. But many Asian countries avoided that cycle by imposing strict travel restrictions combined with harsh measures at home.

Now some are seeing record numbers of new cases and even deaths, attributed in part to the highly contagious delta variant coupled with low vaccination rates and decisions to ease restrictions that have hit economies hard. While the total numbers are nowhere near those of outbreaks in hotspots in Europe and the United States, the rapid rise has set alarm bells ringing, just as many Western countries with high vaccine rates began to breathe a sigh of relief.

Thailand reported a record new deaths on Thursday with 75 — and they hit 72 on Friday. South Korea set a record for new cases on Thursday, before breaking it on Friday with 1,316 infections, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. For the first time, Indonesia is seeing a wave of surges with hospitals turning patients away and oxygen supplies running out.

Of the 317,506 confirmed cases and 2,534 deaths in Thailand since the start of the pandemic, more than 90% have come since the beginning of April.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s handling of the wave has been widely criticized, including the decision to allow people to travel for the Songkran festival in April to celebrate the New Year in Thailand.

Thailand already has strict regulations on the wearing of masks and other rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but the government announced even stricter measures on Bangkok and the surrounding area on Friday, including closing spas, limiting the opening hours of the public transport and limiting the opening hours of markets and convenience stores.

“Something is wrong with government policy, our vaccinations are too slow and we should be getting better vaccines,” said resident Cherkarn Rachasevet, a 60-year-old IT analyst, who rushed to the supermarket to stock up after hearing that. new restrictions came in, wearing four masks and a face shield.

She complained that she wouldn’t get her first shot until the end of the month.

Lagging vaccination rate

In the Asia-Pacific region, immunization rates have lagged for a variety of reasons, including production and distribution issues and an initial wait-and-see attitude on the part of many in the beginning when numbers were low and there was less sense of urgency.

In South Korea — widely praised for its initial response to the pandemic, which included extensive testing and contact tracing — critics are now blaming a current spike in cases on the government’s drive to reduce social distancing over economic concerns. Meanwhile, 70% of the population is still waiting for their first injection due to a shortage of vaccine stocks.

However, the recent death toll has been low, and authorities attribute that to the fact that many who have been vaccinated were elderly Koreans at risk.

Amid a spike in infections in the Seoul area, authorities announced Friday that they would impose the strictest restrictions yet from next week. These include banning private social gatherings of three or more people after 6 p.m., closing nightclubs and churches, banning visitors to hospitals and nursing homes, and limiting weddings and funerals to family gatherings only.

No country has been hit as hard in the region in recent times as Indonesia. The seven-day moving averages of daily cases and deaths have both more than doubled in the past two weeks.

Health experts say a partial lockdown on July 3 was too little, too late, and warned that the current wave, mainly on the islands of Java, Bali and a few towns on the island of Sumatra, will soon spread across the vast archipelago — and the health system is already collapsing under the pressure.

Despite a strict national lockdown in nearby Malaysia, with residents confined to their homes and only one person per household allowed to go shopping, new cases have continued to rise since the start of June 1, reaching a record 9,180 daily number on Friday. cases reported. . The total death toll has more than doubled to 5,903 since June 1.

It is the second national lockdown in the past year and the government said it will remain in effect until the daily infection rate falls below 4,000 and at least 10% of the population is vaccinated – but it comes at a huge cost, putting economic hardships are increasing, with numerous businesses forced to close and thousands losing their jobs.

Restrictions tightened in Vietnam

Vietnam also imposed tougher restrictions on Friday, shutting down Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s largest metropolis and economic and financial center, for two weeks. The 9 million inhabitants of the southern city are only allowed to leave their homes at that time to buy food, medicine and other urgent matters.

Vietnam was able to limit its total number of coronavirus cases to 2,800 during the first year of the pandemic and reported almost no new cases in the three months to the end of April, when they began to rise rapidly. In the past two months, the country has registered some 22,000 new cases and the less severe restrictions imposed so far have not stopped the rise.

“It is a difficult decision to shut down the city, but it is necessary to contain the pandemic and restore normalcy,” Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh said at a government meeting on Thursday evening.

Currently, about 4% of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, although the health ministry said it hopes to vaccinate 70% of the country’s 96 million people by the end of the year.

An exception to the regional rule seems to be India, where the delta variant was first discovered – perhaps because the rise was first. The country has slowly emerged from a traumatic April and May, when a devastating spike in infections swept across the country, hospitals ran out of beds and oxygen supplies, and overwhelmed crematoria were forced to burn bodies on pyres outside.

New cases and deaths are now declining, but with less than 5% of the country’s eligible population fully vaccinated, authorities are trying to distribute more injections and are investing heavily in field hospitals and ICU beds and stockpiling oxygen. .

Japan and Australia also announced new restrictions this week. Japan, in particular, is being watched as the state of emergency means spectators will be banned from most venues during the upcoming Olympics.

With the detection of the delta variant last month in Australia’s New South Wales, State Prime Minister Gladys Berejiklian said on Friday that this is now the “scariest period” of the pandemic, as she announced new restrictions in Sydney after the city reported 44 new cases. , in line with the country’s approach to act quickly with targeted measures to eradicate new outbreaks.

“New South Wales faces the biggest challenge we have faced since the start of the pandemic,” she said. “And I’m not just saying that.”

(AP)