The WHO warned on Tuesday that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus could lead to overwhelmed healthcare systems, although early studies suggest it triggers a milder illness as countries reintroduced strict restrictions to stamp out surges in Covid-19 and France. reported a new record number of cases.
The waves of Covid-19 have wreaked havoc around the world, forcing many nations to make tough choices between financially punishing restrictions and controlling the spread of the virus.
France on Tuesday reported a record 179,807 new confirmed cases in a 24-hour period, by far the highest number since the start of the pandemic.
The previous record of 104,611 was set on Saturday.
To stifle rising numbers, the country also ordered companies to have employees work from home at least three days a week.
The United States has halved the isolation period for asymptomatic cases to try to limit the disruption.
Contact restrictions were in place in Germany for the second year in a row heading into the New Year, as Europe’s largest economy closed nightclubs and forced sports competitions behind closed doors.
Despite facing a much smaller outbreak compared to global virus hot spots, China has not relaxed its “Covid zero” strategy, imposing stay-at-home orders in many parts of the city of Yan’an.
The hundreds of thousands of residents affected there joined the 13 million people in Xi’an City, who entered the sixth day of home confinement as China battled its highest number of daily cases in 21 months.
China Extends Lockdowns As Covid Cases Rise
“I’m about to starve to death,” wrote a Xi’an resident on the Twitter-like Weibo platform.
“No food, my accommodation won’t let me out, and I’m about to run out of instant noodles … please help!”
Many Xi’an residents have similarly complained on social media about the restrictions, including a driving ban and allowing only one family member to shop for food every three days.
This lockdown is the most widespread in China since the similarly-sized city of Wuhan was cut off from the world in the early days of the pandemic.
The highly transmissible Omicron variant has driven surges in many countries, with the Netherlands and Switzerland saying on Tuesday that it has become the dominant strain in their countries.
France, Britain, Greece and Portugal reported a record number of daily cases on Tuesday.
The WHO cautioned against complacency despite preliminary findings suggesting that Omicron causes milder disease.
Despite studies, Omicron’s rapid growth “will continue to lead to large numbers of hospitalizations, especially among unvaccinated groups, and will lead to widespread disruption of healthcare systems and other critical services,” warned Catherine Smallwood, Incident Director. of Covid of the WHO in Europe.
To stem the tide, European nations regained restrictions with painful economic and social consequences.
Finland said on Tuesday it would bar entry to unvaccinated foreign travelers. Only residents, essential workers or diplomats will be exempt.
The Nordic country, like Sweden, had started requiring negative tests for incoming non-resident travelers as of Tuesday, a day after Denmark, which currently has the highest per capita infection rate in the world, applied the same measure.
In Germany, private gatherings are now limited to 10 vaccinated people, or two households where there are unvaccinated people, and nightclubs have been closed. All sports competitions will now take place behind closed doors.
But a Belgian court thwarted Prime Minister Alexander De Croo’s plans to introduce more restrictions by suspending an order to shut down entertainment venues.
Beyond social struggles, the pandemic has hit financially, particularly sectors such as travel.
Some 11,500 flights have been canceled worldwide since Friday and tens of thousands more have been delayed during one of the busiest periods of the year.
Several airlines have blamed staffing shortages caused by Omicron’s spikes in cases.
The rise in the US has been driven by the Omicron variant, as well as large groups of unvaccinated residents and a lack of access to quick and easy tests.
But US President Joe Biden offered a respite to the travel industry Tuesday by announcing the end of the eight-country South African travel ban imposed in response to the rise of Omicron.
Biden said Monday that some US hospitals may be “overrun,” but that the country as a whole was well prepared.
He stressed that Omicron would not have the same impact as the initial Covid outbreak or the rise of the Delta variant this year.
In an effort to prevent massive labor shortages during the surge, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday reduced the isolation period for asymptomatic cases from 10 to five days.
( Jowhar with AFP and REUTERS)