Delta variant adds urgency to nations’ Covid response

Rapid response: A woman wearing a protective face mask walks a dog in front of the deserted Sydney Opera House during the lockdown. Sydney, with a relatively low vaccination rate, took strong measures to fight the Delta variant despite a low absolute number of infections. — Reuters

LAST weekend, Sydney was put under a mandatory stay-at-home order for two weeks in response to the risk posed by the Delta variant of Covid-19.

This came as a surprise to many, especially those who rightly view Australia as having been among the best in managing Covid-19, with its very low infections, hospitalisations and deaths.

Australia was not the only recent Covid-19 surprise in advanced countries. Israel, long a vaccination leader, reimposed an indoor-mask requirement last Friday. Once again, the catalyst was the Delta variant.

Then there was the UK, which, other than India, has been battling longest against Delta. According to government reports, the number of Delta infections rose 46% in just one week.

Indeed, whether it is the evidence from there or the reactions of Australia and Israel, four issues should be front and center for many more countries, which need to realise that new Covid-19 risks are likely and do not respect borders.

The ability of the Delta variant to spread fast and deep has surprised many. It is the most infectious variant so far, especially among the non-vaccinated segments of the population. But it also hits the vaccinated, including the doubled-jabbed who, according to UK data, made up as much as 20% of those infected with Delta.

Fortunately, the health consequences of the Delta variant in advanced countries appear less severe so far. This is due in part to a better understanding of Covid-19 some 18 months into the pandemic. But most important is vaccination: While it has not totally broken the link between infections on the one hand and hospitalisations and deaths on the other, it has significantly weakened it. So far, a lot fewer of those testing positive have ended up in hospital or worse because they were vaccinated. Uncertainty remains, however, about the risks of “long Covid” effects.

Government policy reactions have varied significantly, and not just because of different vaccination rates. Important behavioral judgments appear to be in play as well as issues about policy acceptance and effectiveness.

Sydney, with a relatively low vaccination rate, took strong measures despite a very low absolute number of infections. Israel and the UK have high vaccination rates but have differed in their reactions, with Israel tightening guidelines but the UK maintaining its reopening narrative. (England did delay by a month the final stage of the reopening road map, with similar actions by Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales; importantly, it has also stepped up in the already-impressive vaccination effort there, with pop-up vaccination centres that don’t require a reservation appearing nationwide.)

As of now, the incremental economic damage associated with the Delta variant in advanced countries appears limited, especially when compared with India, where it originated and has been causing widespread human tragedies.

Though there are recent examples around the world of significant disruptions because of new waves of Covid-19 (Bangladesh being last weekend’s most striking example), there is little to suggest as of now that Delta in itself is particularly damaging economically and financially in the advanced world.

While it is still early when it comes to the potential global spread, and it will spread unfortunately, many countries have become much better at managing through these waves.

No matter how the four factors evolve, it is hard to deny two general but important conclusions.

First, Delta is yet another illustration that the terrible Covid-19 pandemic will not end suddenly. Instead, the world will need to continue to adapt to the reality of living with an endemic for a while – that is, a virus that is proving hard to fully eradicate. With improved private and public health practices and guidelines, living in this age of an endemic virus can be a lot less threatening to lives and livelihoods.

Governments must reinforce their efforts to win all three races in this historical pushback against Covid-19. Winning just one or two is simply not sufficient. Specifically, victory is needed in crushing infections, minimising variants and accelerating full vaccination. It is not just a government responsibility, as important as this is. It also places an important obligation on individuals to adhere consistently and fully to what the UK government has labeled “hand, face, space” health practices.

Second, there is no sure way for one country to protect itself from Covid-19 threats coming from outside. Think of this weekend’s Sydney news. Along with New Zealand, Australia has taken the most restrictive approach to cross-border human interactions among the advanced economies, imposing quite a range of inconveniences on citizens. It has enforced strict limits on inward and outward travel, subjected those traveling to Australia to quotas, as well as harsh quarantine rules and practices, and has a population that has been impressively understanding, supportive and compliant. Yet Sydney was again shut down, and not as a quick circuit breaker but for a longer period.

The only way to ensure well-being is to go back to the mantra that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.” Further vigilance in advanced countries needs to be accompanied with greater assistance to poorer and less-well-organised countries to improve everyone’s durable protection against Covid-19. — Bloomberg

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