In Costa Rica, officials are encouraging those infected with the coronavirus to skip voting in upcoming national elections. On the other side of the world, Beijing is locking down residential communities as the country anxiously awaits the start of the Winter Olympics on Feb. 4, according to AP.
In Latin America and Asia, where the omicron variant is making its latest appearance, some countries are imposing such restrictions while others are loath to place new limits on populations already exhausted by previous constraints.
Omicron quickly swept through the places it first hit, such as South Africa, the U.K. and the United States, pushing daily cases far higher than at any time during the pandemic.
The Americas reported nearly 7.2 million new COVID infections and more than 15,000 COVID-related deaths over the past week, the Pan American Health Organization said Wednesday. Coronavirus infections across the Americas almost doubled between Jan. 1 and Jan. 8, from 3.4 million cases to 6.1 million, PAHO said.
Infections are accelerating in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Peru, and hospitalizations are rising in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, said PAHO Director Carissa Etienne. The Caribbean islands are experiencing their steepest increase in COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, Etienne noted.
“Although omicron infections appear to be milder, we continue to urge caution because the virus is spreading more actively than ever before,” Etienne said.
Infections are also increasing in Asia, including in the Philippines, which has seen its worst coronavirus outbreak in recent weeks.
Countries in both regions are searching for a mix of restrictions that their exhausted populations will accept and that won’t inflict undue damage on their economies.
“We’re already going on three years of the pandemic and the population is tired,” said Brazil’s president of the Council of State Health Secretariats, Carlos Lula. “There is no space for many restrictions. We’re going to have to face a third wave with precautions like masking, distancing and vaccination.”
Argentina and Mexico also have largely ruled out imposing any national restrictions, instead banking on their vaccination campaigns and the apparently less severe symptoms of the omicron variant.
Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, having just emerged from a week of isolation after his second coronavirus infection in the past year, downplayed the threat. “It is demonstrable that this variant does not have the same seriousness as the earlier, the delta,” López Obrador said this week.
In Asia, South Korea actually eased its restrictions on gatherings slightly this week. But officials have expressed concern about a surge in infections over the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins at the end of the month, when millions of people usually travel across the country to meet relatives.
In China, Beijing has moved classes online and locked down some office buildings. Japan, meanwhile, is maintaining strict border controls as infections surge, but otherwise doing little more than shortening business hours for restaurants and bars.
Hong Kong authorities have banned indoor dining after 6 p.m. and ordered certain businesses, such as museums and gyms, to close until at least early February. The city is also culling small animals including hamsters and chinchillas and halting their import and sales after several hamsters in a pet shop tested positive for the coronavirus.
In the Philippines, officials this week started banning commuters who have not been fully vaccinated from riding public transportation in greater Manila, a region of more than 13 million people. The move sparked protests from human rights groups. Daily confirmed infections soared from a few hundred last month to more than 30,000 in recent days.
Roman Catholic Church leaders in the Philippines capital were forced to cancel the Jan. 9 procession of the Black Nazarene, a centuries-old black statue of Jesus Christ, for a second year. Because the event is one of Asia’s biggest religious festivals, drawing millions of mostly barefoot pilgrims, officials feared it could become a superspreader during the omicron surge.
Warning that the sometimes-weaker omicron variant can still kill, President Rodrigo Duterte implored people to get fully immunized.
“If you’re vaccinated, you have a fighting chance. If not, we’ll be burying, filling our cemeteries,” Duterte said in televised remarks.