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The Great Divide over living with the virus

Coronavirus pandemic updates

As Europe and the US stride on with coronavirus vaccinations, global divides are opening. One, as dozens of signatories highlighted in a letter to the Financial Times this week, is with lower-income countries where a dangerous shortage of vaccines persists. Another is within the more developed world: between western countries that are reopening and living with coronavirus, and many Asia-Pacific nations that are still focused on suppressing it. Their strategies, and the strict travel and border controls they necessitate, are becoming ever harder to sustain.

The Delta variant is still disrupting travel in the west. The EU has recommended reinstating restrictions on unvaccinated US travellers because of rising American infections. Some EU politicians are also frustrated that, while infections and deaths remain lower in Europe, the Biden administration has maintained a ban on foreigners entering the US from the Schengen zone, as well as Ireland and the UK. Within the EU, however, which reached a goal of double vaccinating 70 per cent of its adult population overall this week, a digital Covid vaccination certificate is easing travel, and the bloc has reopened borders to a list of “epidemiologically safe” countries.

By contrast Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand and several other Asia-Pacific countries remain largely closed to travel. Their vigilant approach was praised in the pandemic’s early days, and saved countless lives.

The Delta variant has altered the equation by showing that the virus can still circulate when much of the population are vaccinated — though jabs, as long as their effects persist, offer strong protection against serious illness. That is raising questions over the exit strategy from tight restrictions that are still holding up Asia-Pacific’s reopening to business and travel.

Some states are maintaining travel controls despite advancing vaccination programmes. With just over half its total population double-jabbed, Hong Kong businesses are complaining that super-strict quarantine requirements are damaging the city’s status as a global financial hub. Japan, where vaccination rates are slowly catching up with Europe, has found that vaccine passports intended to exempt Japanese travellers from restrictions abroad have achieved only limited acceptance — as Tokyo has been slow to offer similar rights to visitors from elsewhere. Travel corridors must work both ways.

Countries such as Australia and New Zealand that closed borders and followed zero-Covid strategies tended to be more relaxed about vaccinations, which has left them with a particular dilemma. A single locally-acquired coronavirus case in New Zealand triggered a full national lockdown last month, and Auckland remains under the highest-level restrictions. But the Delta variant, far more contagious than the original coronavirus strain, is even trickier to contain through lockdowns, and with only a quarter of the total population doubled-jabbed New Zealand is highly vulnerable to an outbreak. Tourism and international education, mainstays of its economy, continue to be hit hard by its tight border controls.

With Australia preparing to shift from its zero-Covid policy to relying on jabs and accepting rising case numbers, some New Zealand officials concede a rethink may be needed there, too. Entry restrictions are unlikely to be lifted until vaccination rates are much higher; Singapore is cautiously reopening to foreign travel after announcing this week it had fully jabbed 80 per cent of its population. But even for Asia-Pacific countries that strove hardest to stamp it out, the future seems likely to look more like that in Europe and the US: learning to live with Covid.

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