Little is known about the potential dangers posed by the Omicron coronavirus variant but concern over its spread is already threatening to wreck reopening plans in Asia-Pacific.
After more than 20 months of strict border controls and restrictions on daily life, many countries in the region had tentatively started to loosen up and live with Covid — months after their European and North American counterparts fully reopened.
But it took only a matter of days to change that.
Last month, after South African scientists detected a new variant, dozens of nations imposed travel bans on visitors from several southern African countries. Some countries in Asia-Pacific have gone further by extending mandatory quarantines or shutting their borders to almost all foreign travelers.
Scientists in the United States say it will take at least two weeks to know more about how the variant impacts vaccine efficacy and Covid treatments. As public health experts wait for the data, governments across the Asia-Pacific region aren’t taking any risks. Many are acting quickly over concerns the new Omicron variant could spread into their territories, even in places with already-strict border rules or high vaccination rates.
Experts say that’s understandable. But, they say countries may need to adjust their expectations of what living with Covid looks like and improve vaccine equity as the virus becomes endemic.
“Initially, we thought we lived in this black and white world in terms of the possibility of living with Covid or without it, but that choice is kind of going away with it becoming endemic,” said Renu Singh, research assistant professor with Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who works on the politics of public health during Covid-19.
Some countries in Asia delay reopening
In one of the strongest reactions to Omicron, Japan shut its borders to almost all non-citizens, including international students, business travelers and people visiting family.
Japan initially asked all airlines to suspend reservations — potentially stranding Japanese citizens overseas — but later rescinded the request after complaints. Japanese citizens and foreign residents with a reentry permit are still generally allowed to reenter Japan, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, though they will have to complete mandatory government quarantines from certain countries.
The new rules come just weeks after Japan showed signs of opening up, reducing its mandatory quarantine for vaccinated business travelers from 10 days to three and dropping a curfew on bars and restaurants in the capital, Tokyo.
And Japan isn’t the only Asia-Pacific country rolling back plans to ease restrictions.
Australia — which began reopening a month ago after more than a year of tough border controls — has delayed plans to allow migrants and international students into the country for two weeks over Omicron concerns. It has also banned visitors from several southern African countries. In addition, some state governments are once again requiring international and inter-state travelers to quarantine.
Even countries that relied on tourism and whose economies and people suffered badly as tourism dollars dried up are putting reopening plans on hold. The Philippines, for example, temporarily suspended its plans to allow fully vaccinated international travelers to enter the country in response to Omicron.
Dr. Jason Wang, a professor of pediatrics and health policy at Stanford University, said reopening is a “dynamic process” that may require countries to adjust their policies quickly.
“What the pandemic has taught us is to balance lives and livelihoods. It’s like the heart, we need both systole (contract) and diastole (relax) to keep the heart pumping. Governments need to apply restrictions when cases go up quickly, but can relax when infection rate goes down,” Wang said.
“The goal is to minimize the risk of infectious spread while allowing travel,” he said. “We now have many finer tools to fight the pandemic. Travel ban is a big gun that should be used temporarily, not in the long run.”