China becomes more isolated as Asia Pacific neighbors begin to live with Covid-19

On Tuesday, the northwestern city of Lanzhou, with a population of more than 4 million people, was closed after only six cases of Covid-19 were reported there.

And this approach looks set to stick, at least for now. Although some Chinese health officials have suggested a tentative or partial relaxation once vaccination rates reach 85%, analysts say most restrictions are unlikely to ease in the next 12 months.

Medical staff take a swab sample from a man to be tested for the Covid-19 coronavirus in the Ganzhou district of Zhangye, northwest China's Gansu province, on Oct. 29.

In China’s Asia Pacific neighbors, however, things couldn’t be more different.

Starting Monday, South Korea will begin living with the virus despite thousands of new confirmed cases each week. The new measures will allow up to 10 people to meet in private meetings across the country, while most businesses will be allowed to fully reopen when curfews end.

And in Tokyo, the capital of Japan, Curfews for bars and restaurants were lifted late last month, despite hundreds of new cases across the country every day.

And it is not only internal restrictions that are being lifted in the region.

While Japan and South Korea continue to maintain strict border controls, including quarantines for most international arrivals, as of Monday Thailand welcome visitors from 45 countriesas long as they can show that they are fully vaccinated and tested negative for Covid-19.

And on Monday, Australia also begins partially reopening its borders to citizens who are fully vaccinated, ending a strict border regime that has separated families for nearly two years.

Much of this is due to the generally high vaccination rates in Asia Pacific. Despite a slow start to their deployments, countries such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore they are now among the most vaccinated in the world per capita.

South Korea’s return to ‘normal life’

South Korea was one of the first countries to experience a major Covid-19 outbreak, with hundreds of cases a day in March 2020.

It had early success in controlling infections, as did many other Asia Pacific countries. While Europe and North America suffered major outbreaks in 2020, nations such as South Korea, China, Thailand and Australia managed to keep the virus at manageable levels, or kept it away for long periods of time.

But outbreaks of the highly infectious Delta variant in mid-2021 have they sent cases up across the region and led almost all countries to focus on moving to vaccines and living with the virus, rather than elimination.

“With the Delta variant, it is almost impossible to eradicate,” said Zhengming Chen, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Oxford. “The experience in Australia and New Zealand, they tried really hard, but you get to a point where you just can’t continue in the confinement. It’s going to come up over and over again.”

On Friday, with at least 73% of South Korea’s population fully vaccinated, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said it was time for the country “to take the first step in resuming our normal lives.”

The curfew has been lifted at 10 pm in businesses, including restaurants and bars, while mass gatherings of up to 499 people can be held if everyone is vaccinated. All students will return to school from November 22, according to the Ministry of Education.

The removal of the restrictions comes despite the increase in Covid-19 cases over the past week. On Sunday, South Korea reported 1,686 new infections, bringing its total to 366,386 since the pandemic began. To date, 2,858 have died in South Korea from the disease.

Prime Minister Kim said it was not the end of the fight against Covid-19, “but a new beginning.” The country’s health minister also warned that an increase in infections is likely as a result of the reopening.

A local district health official in protective gear disinfects shop fronts as a precaution against coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday, October 29.

Other countries in the region are doing the same, despite local outbreaks of the virus.

Over the past week, Thailand reported an average of nearly 9,000 new Covid-19 infections per day, much higher than months of single-digit cases for much of 2020. Despite high infection rates, the country It is moving to reopen to international travelers in a bid to save its tourism industry, which accounted for more than 11% of its GDP in 2019, according to Reuters.

As of Monday, citizens of dozens of “low-risk” countries, including Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, will be able to travel to Thailand without the need to self-quarantine. In a statement on October 12, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said the country could not afford to miss the December holiday period. “We must act quickly, but still cautiously, and not miss the opportunity to attract some of the New Year’s Eve and holiday season travelers,” he said.

Thailand’s decision depends, at least in part, on high vaccination rates among arriving tourists. Within Thailand, less than half or around 42% of the population has received both doses of vaccination as of October 28.

For the Asia Pacific region, the emergence of Covid Zero is an experiment to see if populations that previously appreciated low infection rates and an elimination strategy can safely move on to living with the virus.

Australia’s two largest states, New South Wales and Victoria, have already abandoned the elimination strategy and started living with the virus once more than 70% of the adult population was fully vaccinated.

So far, infection rates have not increased, and on Monday, Australia’s borders in select states will reopen to citizens for the first time.

Chen said that while cases are sure to increase, vaccination has substantially reduced the severity of Covid-19 for many patients and given countries a chance to reopen.

“At some point you have to open, you have to allow cases to increase, but in a manageable way,” he said. “You cannot limit the permanent block because the virus is circulating.”

China doubles the Covid zero

But China shows no signs of relaxing its hardline approach to Covid-19.

At present, China’s borders are mostly closed, with greatly reduced air travel and foreign students and tourists barred from entering. Chinese citizens and some other international visitors can enter, but must remain in quarantine for at least two weeks.

Within the country, even a small number of cases in a city lead to rapid and radical lockdowns.

Part of the reason behind China’s reluctance to reopen its borders is the upcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which will begin in February. After seeing the chaos and postponements that marked the run-up to the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, the Chinese government is unlikely to want a repeat.

But the 2022 Winter Olympics is not the only major event next year that plays into Beijing’s strategy, according to Steven Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute. In November, the Communist Party of China will hold its 20th Congress, a massive gathering of the country’s leaders twice a decade in which President Xi Jinping is expected to cement a third term in office.

Tsang said Xi did not want any sign that the virus was out of control within the country before going to Congress in November. “How can it appear that Xi Jinping has not defeated the virus?” he said. “Xi has been saying that the Chinese system is superior.”

Xi’s political ambitions are one reason the country’s strict measures are spreading, Tsang said, no matter how much damage they may be causing in places like Hong Kong, the world’s financial center where strict travel rules are proving extremely unpopular, especially among the city’s expatriate workforce.

“As a global financial center, you need to have a much more user-friendly entry system, but the Chinese vision, Xi’s vision, of Hong Kong is that it is a global financial center for China,” he said.

People line up to get tested for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a Beijing hospital on October 29.

Chen, from the University of Oxford, said there was also possible uncertainty about the effectiveness of vaccines developed in China among the country’s leaders. In international trials, one of the most widely used injections, Sinovac, has been shown to have much lower efficacy levels than mRNA vaccines, including Pfizer and Moderna.

Additionally, he said that a large number of trials were not conducted in older people, which could leave them vulnerable in the event of an outbreak.

There have been some minor cracks in uniform support for China’s phase-out strategy. Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in October that once the country had fully vaccinated 85% of its population, perhaps in early 2022, it would be sure to relax restrictions.

“Why shouldn’t we open up?” he said, according to the state-run China Daily.

Chen said China is likely watching what happens in the rest of the region before deciding what to do with its own borders. If there are few major outbreaks in Asia Pacific nations living with Covid, then perhaps Beijing will consider an earlier opening, he said.

“That gives China some confidence to relax,” he said.

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