In Asia, the Covid-19 rules are no longer applicable, with one big caveat

MANILA — In the Philippines, tens of thousands are thronging political rallies in Manila, and the zoo there is packed. Millions flocked to India last weekend to celebrate a Hindu festival. And in South Korea, 15,000 fans descended on a stadium in Seoul for three nights to see K-pop band BTS perform for the first time since October 2019.

Many countries in Asia-Pacific are shedding thickets of Covid rules at a startling rate, even as the omicron variant of the coronavirus still rages in parts of the region. The moves are being driven by a mix of medical advice, economic pressures and a pandemic-weary public’s sense that enough is enough.

“God knows we need that break,” said Shelly Bacallia, 29, who took her son to the Manila Zoo over the weekend in a sort of reward for surviving a string of punishing Covid lockdowns. “We’ve been locked up for the past two years.”

There is at least one major caveat to the trend: mainland China, generally sticking to its “zero Covid” approach, is sticking with the quick lockdowns and tight border controls in place since early 2020. The state-controlled media emphasizes that the country of 1.4 billion people has by far the best record in battling the virus. It plays up the death and sickness toll from pandemics in other countries, while pointing to China’s low numbers as a sign of the country’s system’s superiority.

But experts have questioned the wisdom of this approach as the country grapples with its biggest outbreak since the pandemic began in Wuhan, factories have shut down and truck traffic has been delayed – resulting in frayed supply chains.

“China’s zero-Covid policy will leave it — and Hong Kong, to the extent that it follows — increasingly isolated,” said Victor V. Ramraj, a law professor who recently published a collection of articles on Covid-era legal policy in the Region has edited and teaches at the University of Victoria in Canada.

Hong Kong, a Chinese territory whose Covid policies once mirrored those on the mainland, diverged in strategy this week at huge cost. With its previously tight border controls, the area had cut itself off from the outside world and stifled an economy dependent on international trade.

On Monday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced a lifting of her flight ban from nine countries and announced plans to further relax Covid rules. But the changes came even as the area experienced a major outbreak, with the city’s Covid death rate currently among the highest in the world at three per 100,000 people. In hospitals, bodies are piling up next to Covid patients and morgues are filling up fast.

But almost everywhere else in Asia, virus rules are on the wane, the pace set by epidemiology, economic imperatives or political pressures.

In India, where massive Covid outbreaks once killed hundreds of thousands, restrictions there have largely disappeared in recent weeks, save for mask requirements. Last weekend, millions of people celebrated Holi, a Hindu spring festival in which people throw colored powder at each other.

S. Sivaraman, 68, an advertising executive in the capital New Delhi, went to a Holi party in a park with his family and about 100 neighbors. As people ran around dousing each other with powder, the trauma of the pandemic was briefly forgotten.

“We were so happy to get out of a cage,” he said, “to meet and hug people freely.”

Thailand has gradually eased entry requirements for foreign tourists in recent months. In Indonesia, Bali – a key driver of the country’s tourism sector – has reopened faster than the rest of the country; It was one of the first provinces to lift quarantine for foreign travelers.

There have been some concerns that Indonesia’s central government could introduce new restrictions during the Ramadan holiday, which begins in April. But Theresia Elena, the general manager of Dash Hotel Seminyak in Bali, said she wasn’t worried.

“That’s not going to happen,” she said. “This is Bali. Sweet promises were made to us.”

New Zealand’s initial caution about the virus became politically untenable this year after business groups called for less restrictions and expatriate citizens protested restrictions on their return. The country is now planning to welcome foreign tourists back in April, months ahead of schedule to help its economic recovery. From April 4, vaccination passports will no longer be required to enter public facilities and vaccination mandates will be dropped for education, health, police and defense personnel, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Wednesday.

The South Korean government said this month that it would relax several antivirus measures under similar pressure from companies. Outgoing President Moon Jae-in relaxed rules amid an election campaign in which the ruling party candidate had tried to sway the votes of long-suffering small business owners by promising to lift pandemic rules, including night-time curfews that limit the number of people who can get out allowed to gather in public.

Jacob Lee, an infectious disease specialist at Hallym University in South Korea, criticized the change, saying it did was above all “clearly a political decision”.

“Extending social distancing would have been the right and scientific course of action,” he said. “But South Korea has taken the foolish step of preemptively easing distancing.”

Japan, which has maintained some of the strictest entry barriers, is also considering lifting quarantine requirements for foreign businessmen and students. More Southeast Asian countries are accepting tourists, including Singapore, Cambodia and Vietnam, although travelers have been frustrated with unclear policies on quarantines and testing.

In the Philippines, Covid protocols have taken a back seat to campaign events for the May presidential election. Tens of thousands of people thronged Manila’s Ortigas business district last weekend to see Leni Robredo, who is running to replace outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte. It was the largest public gathering in the country in two years.

At the same time, masks are still required in public places, some schools are continuing to hold online classes and social distancing reminders are still being posted at venues.

These include the Manila Zoo, where Ms Bacallia’s 7-year-old son received a second dose of a Covid vaccine as a condition of entry at a pop-up clinic last weekend. He is afraid of needles and fights back.

“But it’s good that we can all go out now,” she said. “We told him, ‘We’re going to the zoo, but you need your syringe before you come in.’ That helped calm him down.”

The question now is how long China can stick to its zero-Covid policy.

This month, officials imposed severe restrictions on the movement of residents in two major cities, Shanghai and Shenzhen, on a day when each megacity reported fewer than 70 new cases.

But there are signs even China is tweaking its approach after the country’s leader Xi Jinping urged officials to limit the economic pains of the country’s Covid response.

Still, the virus controls retain the support of many.

Ryan Liu, 33, who works at an internet company in Shenzhen and has hardly left home this month, said he was happy to make a sacrifice for the greater good.

“From our point of view, or from the point of view of most of us, we prefer these kinds of strict control measures,” he said. “We have to take some action and we can’t give it up.”

Jason Gutierrez reported from Manila, Mike Ives and Victoria Kim from Seoul. Reporting was contributed by Hari Kumar in New Delhi, Keith Bradsher in beijing, Muktita Suhartono in Jakarta, Indonesia, and amy qin and Amy ChangChien in Taipei, Taiwan. Li You contributed to the research.

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