Omicron and Delta howling return of unpopular restrictions

Greeks over the age of 60 who refuse to be vaccinated against the coronavirus could face monthly fines of more than a quarter of their minimum pension – a strict policy the country’s politicians say will cost votes but save lives.

In Israel, potential carriers of the new omicron variant can be tracked by the state’s Internal Security Agency in apparent defiance of a Supreme Court ruling from the latest round.

Weekly protests in the Netherlands over the country’s 5pm lockdown and other new restrictions have descended into violence, despite what appears to be an overwhelming acceptance of the rules.

With the delta variant of COVID-19 driving cases in Europe and concerns rising about the omicron variant, governments around the world are considering new measures for populations weary of hearing about restrictions and vaccinations.

It’s a thorny arithmetic made difficult by the potential for a backlash, increasing social divisions and, for many politicians, the fear of being voted out of office.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday, two days after the government announced that masks would be mandatory again in stores and on public transport and asked all visitors from abroad to undergo COVID-19 testing and quarantine. “We are trying to take a balanced and proportionate approach.”

New restrictions, or variations on old ones, are emerging around the world, especially in Europe, where leaders are making an effort to explain what appears to be a failed promise: that mass vaccinations will mean an end to hateful restrictions on a large scale.

“People need a normal life. They need families, they need to see people, they are obviously safe, socially distanced, but I really think, this Christmas,” said Belinda Storey, who runs a stall at a Christmas market in Nottingham, England. Now, people are tired enough.”

In the Netherlands, where a curfew came into effect last week, police patrols have been carried out to break up demonstrations against the new lockdown, which is among the strictest in the world. But most people seem to have quit to rush errands and go home.

“The only thing we can do is listen to and follow the rules and hope it doesn’t get any worse. For me that’s no problem. I’m a nurse. I know how people get sick,” said Wilma van Campen.

Hoport Brales, the mayor of the Dutch city of Nijmegen who banned the protest last weekend, said he sympathized with the frustration but was ready to implement national rules at home.

There has been much disappointment with the effects of vaccination. Everyone did their best, we had one of the highest vaccination rates and it just wasn’t enough. Infection is higher than ever. I myself was a little disappointed, but we have to look forward.”

In Greece, residents over the age of 60 face fines of $113 a month if they fail to get vaccinated. The fines will be included on tax invoices in January.

About 17% of Greeks over the age of 60 are not immune despite various efforts to get them to get their shots, and nine out of 10 Greeks are currently dying from COVID-19.

“I don’t care if the measure will cost me some extra votes in the election,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Wednesday after lawmakers passed the measure. “I am convinced we are doing the right thing, and I am convinced this policy will save lives.”

Using a carrot instead of a stick, the Slovak government is proposing to give people aged 60 and over a $568 bonus if they are vaccinated.

In Israel, the government this week agreed to resume the use of controversial phone monitoring technology to conduct contact tracing of people confirmed to have the omicron variant.

Israeli rights groups have decried the technology’s use as a violation of privacy rights, and others have pointed out that its indoor accuracy is flawed, resulting in large numbers of people being misreported. The Supreme Court earlier this year issued a ruling limiting its use.

“We need to use this tool in extreme situations, and I’m not convinced that we are in this kind of situation,” Justice Minister Gideon Saar told Kan this week.

In South Africa, which has alerted the World Health Organization to the omicron variant, previous restrictions included curfews and a ban on alcohol sales. This time around, President Cyril Ramaphosa simply called on more people to get vaccinations “to help restore the social freedoms we all yearn for.”

Germany on Thursday imposed tough new restrictions on non-vaccinators, excluding them from shops, restaurants and other major public places. They can go to work only with a negative test.

The legislature is expected to take a general mandate for the vaccine in the coming weeks.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the measures were necessary because hospitals risked becoming overburdened: “The situation in our country is serious.”

The number of infections again exceeded 70,000 within 24 hours.

Officials also agreed to require masks in German schools, and to impose new restrictions on private meetings

In the US, there is little appetite in either political party for a return to lockdowns or strict contact tracing. The imposition of simple measures such as the wearing of masks has become a political flashpoint. Republicans are suing to block the Biden administration’s new requirement for vaccinations or testing for large employers.

President Joe Biden, whose political fate may depend on controlling the pandemic, has used a combination of pressure and urgent appeals to urge people to get their first vaccinations or boosters. Also, the administration is working to require all air travelers to the United States to undergo testing within one day before boarding their flight, instead of the current three days.

But Biden said the United States will combat COVID-19 and the new variant “not with lockdowns or shutdowns but with more vaccines, boosters, widespread testing, and more.”

“If people are vaccinated and wearing masks, there is no need for lockdowns,” he added.

The advent of the new variant makes little difference to Mark Christensen, a grain buyer for the Nebraska ethanol plant. He refuses any authorization to vaccinate and does not understand why it is needed. In any case, he said, most businesses in his corner of the state are too small to fall under the regulations.

“If they’re just encouraging me to take it, that’s one thing,” Christensen said. “But I believe in freedom of choice, not decisions by force.”

Chile has taken an even tougher stance since the advent of omicron: People over 18 must receive a booster every six months to maintain their entry permit allowing access to restaurants, hotels and public gatherings.

And Chile has never abandoned its requirement to wear masks in public – probably the most common renewed restriction worldwide.

Masks are an easy and pain-free way to keep transmission at bay, but cheap home testing should be more widespread, both among the rich and poor countries, said Dr Madhukar Bai, from McGill University’s School of Population and Public Health.

He said both approaches give people a sense of control over their behavior that is lost with lockdown and make it easier to accept the need to do things like cancel a party or stay indoors.

Bey said that the global demand for boosters, as is primarily the case in Israel, Chile and many countries in Europe, including France, will only prolong the epidemic by making it more difficult to get the first doses for the developing world. This raises the possibilities of having more variants.

He said shutdowns should be a last resort.

“Lockdowns only appear when the system fails,” he said. We do it when the hospital system is on the verge of collapse. It is the last resort that indicates that you failed to do all the right things.”

This is not how lockdowns are viewed in communist China, which allows for little dissent. With each new outbreak, entire cities are locked down, and millions of people sometimes undergo mass testing. In the strictest of lockdowns, people are prevented from leaving their homes, and groceries are brought to their doors.

So far, China has not seen the need for new restrictions in response to the Omicron variable. Currently, Omicron is a manageable threat, and “regardless of the variable, our public health measures are effective,” said Wu Zuniu, head of the epidemiology unit at the Chinese Center for Disease Control.


Associated Press reporters Nicholas Pavetis in Athens, Greece; Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem; Alex Fortola in Nijmegen, The Netherlands; Zeke Miller in Washington. Frank Jordan in Berlin; Patricia Luna in Santiago, Chile; Grant Schulte in Lincoln, Nebraska; Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg; Huizhong Wu contributed in Taipei, Taiwan, and Chen Si in Shanghai.

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