Asia has seen a spike in Covid-19 cases. These graphs show what is really happening

For much of the pandemic, these places were seen as Covid-19 success stories, as strict border rules helped them avoid high cases and deaths – even as the pandemic took hold around the world .

Now they are among a number of places across Asia-Pacific grappling with unprecedented outbreaks.

While the surge in cases may in part be explained by the highly contagious variant of Omicron breaking through the region’s defenses, that’s not the whole story.

In some places, rising case numbers are a symptom of living with Covid, as governments accept that trying to eradicate the virus is an unrealistic pursuit. In other places, the skyrocketing cases are blamed on the lack of planning by authorities caught off guard, despite two years of warning.

The highest peak ever reached in Asia

Many of the places reporting the most cases per capita in the Asia-Pacific region — which spans eastern and southern Asia and Oceania — were previously considered success stories.

These include South Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Of these, two countries that have both eased restrictions are behind the number of Asian cases – South Korea and Vietnam.

Vietnam fully reopened to international tourists earlier this month – even as cases surged.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, the presidential election earlier this month may have played a role in its spike. Woo Joo Kim, a professor of infectious diseases at Korea University’s Guro Hospital, said the government eased restrictions in the weeks before the election to address economic losses suffered by small business owners.

“(The Korean government) relaxed the current measures and social distancing even though the number of Covid cases was increasing more and more,” he said.

Abhishek Rimal, regional emergency health coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said the Lunar New Year, celebrated earlier in the year in both countries , could also have contributed to the epidemics.

Another factor, he said, is that Vietnam and South Korea also have large testing capacities, which could also explain why they are finding more cases than other countries.

“They test, that’s why they get it,” he said.

The countries now experiencing large numbers of cases all closed their borders at the start of the pandemic, leaving them largely cut off from the world. When Covid broke through, they used tracing, tracking and social distancing measures to bring outbreaks under control.

Over the past few months, most have started moving towards a new approach: living with the virus.

After years of banning most foreign nationals, all places – except Hong Kong – have eased border restrictions and relaxed rules for citizens.

The reasons behind this differ from place to place.

Singapore led the way in June when it announced it was breaking from the zero-Covid club and charting a course for living with the virus. Other countries followed, but not all by choice. Australia and South Korea only moved to a similar model after failing to eradicate local outbreaks.

“We’re over two years into the pandemic…and people are really considering going back to their normal lives,” Rimal said.

But people in Hong Kong and China are still waiting to move on with their lives. In both places, governments have maintained strict border rules – and people are still living with social distancing measures and the threat of instant Covid lockdowns.

Vaccines are essential

Even with the surge in cases, some Asia-Pacific authorities seem unfazed for one simple reason: vaccines.

Along with the tiny Pacific island nations of Tonga and the Cook Islands, New Zealand and South Korea are reporting the highest cases per capita in the region – but their death tolls remain relatively low.

“Sacrifice and hard work got us here today, and now with more tools and with one of the most immunized populations in the world, we are able to continue to move forward safely,” said New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last week. “Covid is here to stay.”

South Korean authorities pushed the same message.

Hong Kong is betting on zero-Covid.  Now he faces a

“The number of confirmed cases continues to rise significantly, but the severity and death rate, as well as the responsiveness of the medical system, are considered manageable,” health official Son Young-rae said during the briefing. briefing on March 23. “(We) believe that once the peak of this Omicron wave passes, we can convert to a system closer to normal life.”

South Korea and New Zealand both have high vaccination rates – but most importantly they have vaccinated their elderly, who are most vulnerable to serious illness and death from the virus.

And so far, this means that while these countries have seen an increase in the number of deaths as their cases increase, they have always been able to maintain relatively low death rates.

Although funeral homes are struggling to cope with a spike in Covid deaths in South Korea, the country’s death rate was 0.13%, lower than the UK’s 0.18%, United States by 1.2% or France by 0.59%, health official Lee Ki- said on Friday, citing statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO).

It’s a similar situation in New Zealand – as the country had one of the highest reported per capita Covid cases over the past week, when it comes to per capita deaths over the past week, he’s not even in the top 20 in the world.

Again, the region’s outlier is Hong Kong.

Hong Kong, with a population of 7.4 million, has reported more than 7,300 Covid deaths since late December. The city’s per capita death rate has been the highest in Asia and Oceania every day since February 28.
In Hong Kong, 84.5% of the population aged 12 or over were vaccinated with two shots, but, crucially, only 60% of people aged 70 or over received two doses.

The virus was able to spread in nursing homes, where vaccination rates were low.

The question of whether strict measures are worth it is also being played out in mainland China, which is facing its biggest outbreak since that recorded in Wuhan at the start of the pandemic.

And like Hong Kong, vaccinations among the elderly are lagging behind, raising fears that the city’s deadly outbreak could portend a deadly wave across the border.

About 40 million Chinese over the age of 60 have yet to receive a vaccine, according to data from China’s National Health Commission (NHC). Only about half of people aged 80 and over are fully vaccinated, the NHC said in its latest breakdown on March 18. Among people over 80, less than 20% have received a booster shot, although the WHO said last year that all older people taking China’s inactivated vaccines needed three shots to be fully protected.
For now, it looks like China is sticking to its zero-Covid strategy – and relying on strict lockdowns to get its peak cases under control.

CNN’s Yoonjung Seo and Simone McCarthy contributed to this report.

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