An end to isolation: can Asia-Pacific live with coronavirus?

From the paddocks of rural New Zealand and Australia’s beachside suburbs to Singapore’s high rises, people are facing a daunting new reality: living with coronavirus in their communities.

After more than 18 months of relentless virus elimination regimes, governments across Asia-Pacific are forging into the unknown, hoping vaccination rates are high enough to justify the easing of social-distancing measures and reopening borders.

Among them are New Zealand and Singapore, two countries that were celebrated as gold standards in their initial pandemic response.

For many experts, Singapore has emerged as the crucial test case for signalling when vaccine coverage is sufficient to ease restrictions on domestic movement and social distancing as well as border controls.

In June the city-state indicated it would learn to live with the virus. Nearly 84 per cent of the country’s 5.5m people are now fully vaccinated. But plans to ease restrictions have stalled after a sudden rise in case numbers.

“If Singapore goes well, then I imagine there’ll be a stronger push . . . to follow in their footsteps,” said Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong.

Chart showing Covid vaccination doses administered in New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and UK

In many countries, the deployment of new plans to relax lockdown measures has been complicated by citizens who are not ready to coexist with the virus.

“That’s going to be the challenge,” said Rodney Jones, an Asia-focused economist whose pandemic models are used by the New Zealand government. “You have to do it in steps. And as in Singapore, and now in New Zealand and New South Wales, it is muddled. That is how it has to be, there is no other way to do it.”

Across the region, the public, businesses and politicians have argued over the timing and gradations of reopening. There is also concern over whether health systems can survive inevitable outbreaks of the highly contagious Delta coronavirus variant.

“There was a sense [that] ‘elimination works, we’ve got this, we’ve got it under control, we can track and trace, we can stop any outbreak in a low-cost way’, [but] there was no particular urgency on vaccines,” said Jones.

“Delta became a game changer . . . Australia, New Zealand, Singapore have had their strategies upended.”

New Zealanders enjoy a picnic on Piha Beach in Auckland
Residents of Auckland were able to picnic this week after lockdown measures were slightly eased © Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

The death toll stands at fewer than 7,000 across China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand combined. This compares, for instance, with more than 136,000 fatalities in the UK.

But failures to eliminate the Delta variant have brought to an abrupt end the region’s reliance on isolation, and forced its leaders, including Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, to confront life-and-death choices.

The Ardern government is juggling competing tasks of instituting a lockdown in Auckland, the country’s biggest city, with simultaneous plans to reopen borders and allow summer music festivals.

Chart showing UK Covid death toll far larger than Asia-Pacific countries

In Singapore many residents — even those vaccinated — say they are struggling to adapt following nearly two years of intense government campaigning on the dangers of the virus.

Yong Kiat, a Singaporean ride-hailing driver, said he was alarmed by the recent uptick in cases and noted widespread confusion and anxiety among people who test positive for the virus.

“One friend, he lives with his children and grandchildren, tested positive,” he said. “He was told to self-isolate but it was difficult in his home. He didn’t get a straight answer for days on what to do or where he should go. Then family members also got infected.”

Many New Zealanders remain acutely concerned over the resilience of the country’s hospitals and intensive care units.

After successfully suppressing the virus in the early months of the pandemic, governments in the region have been lambasted for acting too slowly to secure vaccinations. And now their vaccine rollouts have been frustrated by hesitancy among some segments of their populations.

In Melbourne, for instance, protesters have clashed with police in recent weeks over mandatory jabs for some workers.

Demonstrators carry a banner reading ‘Freedom’ during an anti-mandatory vaccination protest in Melbourne
A protest in Melbourne earlier this month against mandatory vaccinations for some workers © James Ross/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Experts agree that as restrictions are eased, there will be an inevitable increase in cases.

“That is the really difficult fine-tuning of policy,” said Cowling. “As a public health expert, I’m reluctant to advocate for a strategy where there is a [negative] health impact. The ideal would be a world where there’s no more Covid. But in reality, I don’t think it’s something that can be avoided indefinitely.”

Jones said that while the risk of falling ill with Covid across all age groups should not be “downplayed”, research suggested that age distribution of vaccine coverage is what “really matters”.

According to vaccine experts, he said, “you really need as close to 100 per cent vaccinated of those [over] 65, and as close to 95 per cent for those over 50. Those are the absolutely key metrics.”

China, meanwhile, has shown no signs of deviating from its strategy of virus elimination despite a series of Delta outbreaks. Beijing has ruled out allowing foreign spectators at February’s Winter Olympics, despite administering more than 2.2bn jabs and hitting daily vaccination rates close to 1m.

Betty Wang, a China economist at ANZ, thought there was little chance of Beijing changing course before the Games. She noted that expectations were rising that the ban on visitors would be extended to at least late 2022 when the Chinese Communist party will hold a five-yearly congress at which President Xi Jinping is expected to take a historic third term.

China, she said, could not afford a large coronavirus outbreak, given underlying fears of pressure “not only on public healthcare facilities, but also social stability”.

Back in New Zealand, as in Sydney and Singapore, people are on edge over the next steps their leaders take.

“It is a shame we haven’t been able to stamp it out as a country,” said Michael Robins, a reggae label owner and DJ locked down in Kaukapakapa, a rural area north-west of Auckland. “The government has a really tough decision to make over the coming months.”

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