Party in the club until the early morning hours. Watching movies in the cinema next to each other. Walking without masks in public places – especially in Europe and North America. Step by step, many countries are easing their restrictions on the coronavirus amid hopes that the Omicron wave may have reached its peak.
Early precautionary measures, based on reducing or flattening the number of cases in recent days, represent what could be another turning point in a pandemic of almost two years full of such signs.
The highly contagious Omicron has caused more cases worldwide in the last 10 weeks – 90 million – than throughout 2020, the first year of the pandemic.
However, this week the World Health Organization said that some countries can now carefully consider easing measures if they have high levels of immunity, their health care systems are strong and epidemiological trends are heading in the right direction.
The new cases worldwide for the week of January 24-30 were similar to the previous week, although the number of new deaths increased by 9% to more than 59,000, reflecting the usual delay between infection and death.
The strongest restrictions are being lifted in Europe – the epicenter of the pandemic for many months – and in South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, as well as in the United States. In Britain and the United States, as in South Africa in the beginning, cases have skyrocketed in the beginning, but are now declining rapidly.
In the USA, the city of Denver announced its plans to end the mandatory use of the mask in businesses and public places, keeping it in schools and on public transport. A similar decision is being considered in New York, as the cases have dropped sharply.
England, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and several Nordic countries have taken steps to end or relax their restrictions. In some places, such as Norway and Denmark, the relaxation is coming even though the number of cases is still close to record levels. Some governments are actually betting that the pandemic is receding.
“Rest assured that the worst days are behind us,” said Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, whose daily infection rate topped 100,000 on Wednesday, the highest in the neighboring country.
Last week, England lifted almost all domestic restrictions. Masks are no longer required in public places, vaccination certificates are no longer required to enter public facilities, and the teleworking order has also been revoked.
On Tuesday, Norway lifted its ban on serving alcohol after 23:00 and the ceiling on private gatherings of up to 10 people. People can sit side by side at events and sporting events can take place as before the pandemic.
“Now is the time to take our lives back,” said Health Minister Ingvild Kierkol. “Tonight, we are removing most measures to be closer to living a normal life,” he said.
In the Danish capital, which became the first European Union member to lift restrictions on Tuesday, many people continued to wear masks on the streets and in shops a day later.
“I still wear a mask because I want to protect myself and others whose health is not so good or who have health problems,” said Kieln Rasmussen, 86, of Copenhagen. “I have a lot of health issues and so for me it is also a good way to tell others: ″ Keep your distance ″.”
More than 370 million cases and more than 5.6 million COVID-19-related deaths have been recorded since the beginning of the pandemic worldwide.
The easing of measures, again tightened by Omicron, has raised hopes in many quarters that the epidemic will enter a new phase, in which the virus will become, like the flu, a persistent but generally manageable threat that could people live.
While Omicron has been shown to be less likely to cause serious disease than the delta variant, experts warn against underestimating it or having in mind the possibility of new, more dangerous variants and mutations.
“We are concerned that in some countries the narrative has prevailed that because of vaccines – and because of Omicron's high transmissibility and lower severity – prevention is no longer necessary,” WHO chief Tantros Antanom Gebregessus said on Tuesday.
The head of the WHO emergency, Dr. Michael Ryan warned that political pressure could lead some countries to open up prematurely – and “this will result in unnecessary transmission, unnecessary serious illness and unnecessary death.”
As in the whole pandemic, many countries are following their own path: Italy has tightened its requirements for Covid certificates. As of Monday, he began requiring at least one negative test within 48 hours to enter banks and post offices, and anyone over the age of 50 who has not been vaccinated risks a fine of 100 euros.
Austria, the first European country to impose compulsory vaccination, plans to ease the restrictions this month. Our country has imposed fines on people aged 60 and over who refuse to be vaccinated.
The remote Pacific island nation of Tonga went on a lockdown on Wednesday after spotting cases in two harbors involved in distributing aid in the aftermath of the catastrophic volcanic eruption and tsunami that followed. The country has so far been free of the virus.
A few days before the Beijing Winter Olympics, China is sticking to its zero COVID-19 policy. It imposes strict lockdowns and quarantines quickly when cases are detected, maintains the mandatory use of masks on public transport and requires people to show “green” status in a health app to enter most restaurants and shops.
South Africa announced this week that it had emerged from the fourth wave, saying scientific studies showed that immunity had reached 60% to 80%. Masks are still mandatory, but the curfew has been lifted and schools can be fully reopened – not only in part – for the first time since March 2020.
Dr. Atiya Mossam of the Public Health Association of South Africa said such steps were a “practical move towards recognizing that COVID-19 is here to stay”.
In Germany, where infections continue to hit record highs, restrictions on private gatherings and requirements for proof of vaccination or illness to enter “non-essential” stores remain in place.
Other continents are even more careful. Asia has some of the highest vaccination rates in the world and its leaders insist on tough measures to curb or even target further tightening for the time being.
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