Countries Around World Lockdown Economies To Fight New Coronavirus Variants
London in the midst of Brexit, lockdown, and vaccine delays.

After brief holiday respites, countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa have reverted to major lockdowns as a strategy to stave off new, and even more infectious, SARS-CoV2 virus variants that have been identified in the United Kingdom and in South Africa – which threaten to overwhelm health systems even as countries also rollout brand new COVID vaccines.

Together, the variants have now spread to nearly 40 countries, with the UK variant named ‘VUI – 202012/01, surfacing in at least 32, including with China, and the South African N501Y mutation appearing in at least five other countries on the continent. 

Most countries in continental Europe – including Austria, Italy, Greece, Ireland, Germany and The Netherlands – are either already in lockdown or tightening the screws now, with the UK joining them in the early hours of Wednesday morning.  In Africa, Zimbabwe imposed a strict 30-day lockdown after a spate of New Years revelry with little social distancing.  After bitter political battles, Israel was also set to close down schools nationwide.  Its aggressive vaccination campaign, in which more than 10% of the population has already received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, also has not yet managed to halt the sharply rising levels of new COVID-19 cases – now exceeding rates in the United States.  

And in the Western Pacific, as Australia was shutting down its northern beaches this week, while the Japanese government considered declaring a state of emergency in Tokyo after experiencing record high levels of new cases in the metropolitan area, as well as nationwide. 

Public health leaders said that the moves were unavoidable. “Redoubling efforts to contain this virus through public health measures is essential while vaccines and treatment efforts continue to progress,” said Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust.  Commenting on the advance of the virus variants he added that “we should expect further strains to emerge globally.”

Farrar also called on the UK and other international leaders to ensure global access to the first saves of vaccine supplies being produced, saying: “Leave one country behind and we are all exposed to risk, and to life taking longer and longer to returning to anything like normal.”

United Kingdom: U-Turns, School Closures, and Vaccine Delays
Rates of new SARS-CoV2 infections in the United Kingdom are now among the highest in the world as the country moves to a strict lockdown; Israel is close behind.

Following the UK government’s recent U-turn on 18 December – which undid the five-day period of eased restrictions seen over Christmas – Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed on Monday night that England would be entering its third national lockdown, with similar measures going into place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

The UK decision came after its Chief Medical Officers warned that if swift action was not taken, the National Health Service would be dangerously overwhelmed within just 21 days. 

Despite support for a full lockdown by leaders of the opposition, the national press, and other influential figures, the announcement was still met with considerable criticism, confusion and frustration by a pandemic-weary public.

The key point of contention this time around is the decision to close all schools and universities, along with the cancellation of all GCSE and A-Level exams – the latter determining a student’s acceptance into college or university.

Many children across the country had only just returned to school on Monday morning after the end of the Christmas and New Years holiday break, as the government assured that schools were safe and the schedule would not be changed. Johnson had repeatedly stressed that schools were not unsafe for children, despite critics pointing out that gatherings in schools would mean children act as vectors.

The fact that their first day of the trimester will also be their last has been the source of much anger, and has sown greater doubts about the government’s ‘too-little-too-late’ handling of the pandemic.

“Parents whose children were in school today may reasonably ask why we did not take this decision sooner,” Johnson said on Monday. “The answer is simply that we have been doing everything in our power to keep schools open, because we know how important each day in education is to children’s life chances.”

Third Lockdown Comes At Difficult Time for National Health Service 

The third lockdown comes at a delicate moment for the National Health Service – which is juggling a masive vaccine rollout with record number of new COVID-19 cases. 

The government recently defended its decision to delay the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by up to 12 weeks. The official recommendation of the manufacturer is that a second dose should be administered within 21 days, prompting criticism from Pfizer itself, WHO and White House COVID Task Team advisor Dr Anthony Fauci.

Furthermore, the UK virus variant, which was first identified and reported to WHO in mid-December, confirmed to be between 50-70% more transmissible, is fast becoming the dominant SARS-CoV2 virus strain, and that has sharply increased pressure on hospitals and health workers. The number of COVID patients in England’s hospitals now stands at 27,000, with more than 80,000 people testing positive across Britain: a new record. 

Germany: Lockdown Extended So Infection Chain Can Be Contained 
Japan prepares for another lockdown as Asian countries, like those in Europe, battle rising COVID-19 infection rates.

Tighter restrictions on social gatherings and travel are also to be enforced in Germany, as the government announced that it was extending a lockdown already in place by three weeks, to 31 January.

“We must reach a point where we can once again follow the chains of infection,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday, after a lengthy video conference with Germany’s 16 state governors. “Otherwise, we will just go keep going back into a lockdown after a short relaxation.”

Merkel and the state premiers of the federal states of Germany originally launched a partial lockdown in November that saw bars, restaurants, leisure and sports facilities close.

This failed to halt rising infection rates, so a stricter phase of lockdown was put in place on 16 December, with the closure of nonessential shops and schools.  This was initially intended to run until 10 January. 

While new infections have now begun to decline sharply, it’s not enough for Germany to reopen, the government decided.

The aim is to have the number of confirmed cases sit below a seven-day average of 50 per 100,000 residents; that is the maximum level at which contact-tracing can still function effectively, health officials say.

However, numbers on Tuesday saw new infections at a rate of 134.7 per 100,000 nationwide.  In addition, there were 944 deaths reported: one of the highest daily death tolls in a country that once had a relatively low COVID-19 mortality rate.

New restrictions will prohibit people living in communities with seven-day averages of more than 200 new infections per 100,000 residents from traveling only 15 kilometers (just over 9 miles) from their hometown, unless they have good reason to travel further. 

Merkel and state leaders will meet again on 25 January to determine if the lockdown should be extended once more.

Zimbabwe: Cracking Down On ‘Fake’ Vaccine Certificates
Sanitation workers clean up at a Zimbabwe market. The country is implementing a strict 30-day lockdown, following the rise of fake COVID-19 free certificates and large New Years celebrations.

Following a New Year’s Eve that saw celebrations and parties with little social distancing or mask wearing, Zimbabwe’s government has implemented a strict 30-day lockdown, with special efforts being made to hunt down fake COVID-19 certificates.

Speaking at a press conference, Acting President Kembo Mohadi said that security forces and health officials will be on high alert to ensure full compliance with COVID-19 regulations.

More than 2,300 people were arrested on New Year’s Day for breaking lockdown rules.

“Our security agencies, health officials and educational institutional heads will continue to enforce stricter standard operation procedures to ensure the safety of all citizens. They will enforce adherence to the regulations within the stipulated times,” he said.

“We exhort governance structures to provide and enforce measures that will curtail crowds and congestion at places such as water points, bus terminuses, grinding mills, supermarkets and shopping complexes.”

Zimbabwe will switch from a level two lockdown back to level four, with enforced social distancing. Commercial and informal sectors will be closed, with essential services remaining open. Church services and gatherings for public hearings and low-risk sports are to be suspended for the next thirty days. Non-essential travel is also banned.

In addition to the lockdown, efforts are being made to identify fake negative COVID-19 certificates, which allow people to travel more freely.

“The presentation of unauthentic Covid-19 free certificates by some of our citizens has exposed many unassuming people to the disease. Such dishonesty is criminal and detrimental to the very fabric of society and far removed from Unhu/Ubuntu. This has led to the surge of infections,” Mohadi said.

The ban of passenger traffic across land borders is another consequence of the forgeries. 

Zimbabwe has recorded 1,342 COVID-19 cases and 29 deaths within the past week as infections a trend of increases; on 2 January there were 407 new cases and 8 deaths, all from local infections.  Although these rates are still exceedingly low in comparison to what has been seen in South Africa, not to mention elsewhere in the world, Zimbabwe’s leader, like many of his colleagues on the continent, is keen to keep it that way.  This, in view of the dearth of hospital capacity to care for sick COVID-19 patients and the fact that vaccine rollouts remain only a hope on the continent’s horizon.  In addition, it is likely that many COVID-19 cases in Zimbabwe, like those in neighboring states, go unreported.  

“We are our own saviours and it is our behavioural change that will take us out of danger,” Mohadi said. “It is important that there be a major paradigm shift on behaviour. Let those that are infected now be the last as we all together strive that no one else shall be infected.”

Image Credits: Tanveer Shaikh/Flickr, tokyoaaron02/Flickr, International Labor Organisation ILO/Flickr.

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