COVID-19 digest: restrictions in China grow, Europe eases curbs

NUR-SULTAN. KAZINFORM - While China is tightening coronavirus-related restrictions to fight the spike in cases, European countries do the opposite, relaxing most of their coronavirus rules. More about the global situation with COVID-19 and in Kazakhstan is in the latest analytical article of Kazinform.

Just when the world was ready to calm down, reporting fewer cases over the period of the pandemic, the news came out from China where the cases started to grow rapidly, largely due to the Omicron variant.

China’s zero-Covid policy which includes mass testing, strict lockdowns, and quarantines, has come under a big test as to whether it is an effective way to address the rising cases. World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus questioned the policy saying it is «unsustainable.»

«When we talk about the zero-Covid strategy, we don't think that it's sustainable, considering the behavior of the virus now and what we anticipate in the future. We have discussed this issue with Chinese experts and we indicated that the approach will not be sustainable,» he told a press conference on May 10.

The cost of this zero-COVID policy is tremendous. The Chinese government shut down all non-essential businesses, closed schools and suspended public transport across the country, including the capital Beijing and the big financial hub Shanghai. People are in panic because many do not have access to food. But last week Chinese leader Xi Jinping said China has no intention to change the policy.

China reported 4,280 new cases and 9 deaths largely due to 90 percent of the population being fully vaccinated. However, lower vaccination rates among the elderly population raise concerns.

While China struggles to contain the virus, countries in Europe are relaxing their coronavirus-related curbs.

Starting next week on May 16, Europe will no longer require face masks for air travel, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) announced on May 11.

They explained their decision by noting the latest developments, in particular, the levels of vaccination and naturally acquired immunity and the accompanying lifting of restrictions in a growing number of European countries.

«It is a relief to all of us that we are finally reaching a stage in the pandemic where we can start to relax the health safety measures,» said EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky. «For many passengers, and also aircrew members, there is a strong desire for masks to no longer be a mandatory part of air travel. We are now at the start of that process. Passengers should continue to comply with the requirements of their airline and, where preventive measures are optional, make responsible decisions and respect the choice of other passengers.»

Across Europe, countries are taking measures to ease restrictions despite the high number of infections and relatively low vaccination rates.

Germany, which reported 97,010 new laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases yesterday as well as 231 new deaths, lifted almost all COVID-19 requirements in April. Masks are currently only required on public transport and in hospitals. Only 75.8 percent of the population are fully vaccinated and 59.5 percent received booster dose.

Despite the easing of restrictions, Germany still requires all arriving passengers over the age of 12 to present COVID-19 proof - a valid vaccination document, proof of recovery, or test result.

Spain, which was hit hard by the pandemic, also relinquished its requirement to wear masks, except for public transport, hospitals, and retirement homes from April 20. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Spain has reported 12,058,888 cases and 105,123 deaths.

The country also requires incoming travelers from the EU area to present valid COVID proof - vaccination, recovery, or test results. The entry rules, however, are stricter for passengers from the non-EU area. To enter the country, they are required to present a vaccination or recovery pass.

In the meantime, Greece, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Croatia, Lithuania, Sweden, Serbia, Slovenia, and Slovakia dropped all COVID-19 travel restrictions for visitors.

While more countries reopen their borders and ease restrictions, some risks still remain, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

«While decreasing overall, transmission in the 65 years and older age group is still high (64 percent of the pandemic maximum for the EU/EEA) and three countries reported recent increases among this age group. It is therefore important to continue monitoring the disease burden in older age groups and the overall transmission,» the agency said in their weekly country overview report.

The primary vaccination rate, on average, stands at 72.6 percent of the total population in the EU/EEA. The booster rate is 51.6 percent.

Similar to European countries, Kazakhstan also lifted some of its major coronavirus restrictions - face masks and COVID-19 pass to visit public venues. Since the first case was reported in Kazakhstan on March 13, 2020, the country reported 1.3 million cases and 89,043 coronavirus pneumonia cases. 9.2 million people are fully vaccinated, and 4.1 million have received an additional dose.

Lessons learned from the pandemic

Concluding the key data from 2020 and 2021, the WHO said the essential lesson is that countries need to improve their healthcare systems to make them more sustainable and resilient.

The outbreak of the coronavirus infection back in 2020 revealed that none of the countries - even the most developed ones - were prepared for this at all.

New data from the WHO shows that nearly 14 million people have died in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19, directly or indirectly.

«These sobering data not only point to the impact of the pandemic but also to the need for all countries to invest in more resilient health systems that can sustain essential health services during crises, including stronger health information systems,» said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

To analyze the impact of the pandemic, the WHO experts looked into excess mortality, which is the difference between the actual number of deaths and the number that would be expected in the absence of the pandemic. The highest excess mortality was observed in South-East Asia, Europe, and the Americas. In terms of age and sex, deaths were higher for men than for women (57 percent male, 43 percent female) and higher among older adults.

It has been more than two years since the start of the pandemic, and countries need to learn the lessons. One thing is clear - the world needs to learn to live with coronavirus.

Written by Assel Satubaldina