In emerging economies like India, a new way of thinking about covid

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NDTV Coronavirus


Some emerging economies are choosing to face the new wave with severe constraints.

Developing countries brought to their knees by previous waves of Covid-19 – Brazil, India, Indonesia and others – are only now battling the highly contagious variant of Omicron that has been sweeping Europe and North America for weeks. With the benefit of seeing it happen elsewhere, some are changing their policies not to eliminate the virus, but to live with it.

In a sense, the idea is old, not new. In 2020, when the pandemic began, leaders of Mexico and Brazil rejected lockdowns and quarantines, saying the damage they would cause was greater than the illness and death the coronavirus threatened.

They were usually condemned for their thinking. But today, with large percentages of their populations vaccinated, the costs of lockdowns better understood and ommicron’s relatively mild nature, their old approach is gaining new currency in emerging economies around the world.

On Wednesday, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro even called the new strain a “vaccine virus” that could be considered “welcome” and could effectively herald the end of the pandemic.

In Thailand, previous waves of the virus caused severe restrictions that choked the vital tourism industry, but this time a lockdown, even partial, was off the table. Instead, in September, the government shifted its general approach to what it sees as more practical: treating Covid as endemic by 2022, said the director-general of the Department of Disease Control in Bangkok. That’s a stark turnaround in the strategy of the country’s “zero-covid” target by 2020.

Indonesia was one of the hardest hit countries during the spread of the delta variant in Asia, but the government recently shortened the mandatory quarantine period for inbound travelers and life in Southeast Asia’s most populous country has continued, with offices, restaurants, gyms, places of worship and public transport with increased capacity. Something similar is happening in Latin America’s largest country. After seeing Western countries shorten their quarantine times, Brazil’s health minister followed suit, recommending a cut from 10 to seven days for asymptomatic patients on Monday. Life there feels relatively normal and with a mask you can do just about anything.

A similar rumble has begun in Europe. On Monday, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of Spain became the first leader of a major European country to call on the European Union to debate the possibility of treating Covid-19 as an endemic disease such as flu.

While Argentina’s new cases have reached an all-time high, intensive care occupancy rates and deaths remain low. Likewise in Israel, where the number of “seriously ill” was 125 on January 4, up from a peak of nearly 1,200 a year ago. The country has started a fourth vaccination for people over 60, the first in the world to do so. And in India, where the immunization rate is about 45%, antibody studies suggest that most of the population has already had Covid in the past, which experts say could lessen the impact of the coming wave.

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Even if fatalities are low, the burden on hospitals and health systems can still be high, in part because the latest wave is slowing treatment of other illnesses and surgeries. “While omicron’s results in terms of deaths are to be applauded, there is significant evidence that we are not out of the woods yet,” and that “the rate of hospitalizations could still put pressure on health systems,” said Tom Moultrie, a professor in Demography at the University of Cape Town analyzing South African virus data. But the relatively weak blow of this variant nevertheless leads countries to revise their guidelines. “For now, if governments think they can weather the wave of hospitalizations, easing may be appropriate,” he said.

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As Covid has challenged the entire world economically, emerging markets, with their large sectors of cash-earning workers and tight living conditions, have been hit harder by lockdowns and closures. This week, the World Bank lowered its forecast for global gross domestic product growth from 4.3% to 4.1%, reporting that while advanced economies are on track to approach pre-pandemic output by 2023, emerging and developing economies are still lagging.

Pandemic fatigue is contributing to the shift. Crowded maskless New Year’s Eve parties took place all over Brazil, and in many places there is little political capital left for a fresh closure. “People are here in an atmosphere as if Covid is already over,” said Atila Iamarino, a biologist trained at the University of Sao Paulo and Yale and specializing in virology. “They go out, have parties, think of carnival.”

The message from the federal government in Mexico is to continue as normal. The deputy health minister has said this wave will help the nation achieve herd immunity faster. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who just announced that he has contracted Covid for the second time, has pointed out that omicron does not appear to lead to serious illness. In addition, the vaccination rate in Mexico City is remarkable: 99% of adults. So despite the almost unprecedented rise in cases, most of the country’s official lockdown color isn’t red or yellow, but green — no restrictions of any kind.

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Chile, which imposed one of the most draconian lockdowns and also suffered the worst death rates, hasn’t even started a debate about reintroducing restrictions. But it may not have to: 87% of the country has received two doses and 58% has had a booster shot. The country is now launching a campaign for a second booster, with a third — a fifth dose — likely to start in mid-year.

Some emerging economies are choosing to face the new wave with severe constraints.

There is a curfew in Lima and Delhi. Millions are locked up in China, with border restrictions expected to last all year, and Morocco has banned all international travel. Malaysia is set to suspend travel permits for Muslim pilgrims going to Mecca for umrah this month, and the prime minister of Vietnam has ordered local officials to ban public gatherings, especially Lunar New Year celebrations.

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Some countries have done less well with vaccines than others, complicating policy decisions. In India, where a rising tide of infections seems on track to set records and the hospital system is cripplingly underfunded, teenagers are just starting to receive doses and children are not immunized at all. Misinformation and hesitation about vaccines remain persistent issues: In the Philippines, a 2021 poll found that 68% of the population was unsure or unwilling to get the shot. And Russia and Vietnam were near the bottom of a December Bloomberg Covid resilience ranking that measures virus containment, quality of health care and vaccination coverage in the 53 largest economies.

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It is the absence of public celebrations that has begun to crunch Brazilians, who have not had a carnival celebration for nearly two years. Local leaders crushed those hopes: Last week, Carnival was essentially canceled, first in Rio de Janeiro and then across the country. “The street carnival by its very nature makes it impossible to conduct any kind of inspection,” the mayor of Rio said in a web broadcast.

Brazil’s health minister announced this week that omicron is now the predominant species. The lack of widespread restrictions in the former hotspot still worries some specialists. “The lack of a national mask policy, easily accessible home testing or motion locks,” said biologist Iamarino, “leaves Brazil with its number of cases now poised to explode.”

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by DailyExpertNews staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)

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