Just as the Philippines is finding its footing in the pandemic, emerging trends on coronavirus cases in parts of Europe and Asia are showing that the world may be heading to yet another wave.
by JP Campos
Just as the Philippines is finding its footing in the pandemic, emerging trends on coronavirus cases overseas show that the world may be heading to yet another wave.
The number of cases, which nosedived in early February in the Philippines, are trending upwards in parts of Europe including Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy. The invasion of Ukraine, which has sent immigrants to other European territories to flee the war, has also prompted fears that the continent is due for another outbreak anytime, though this is guesswork at this point.
Some parts of Asia, on the other hand, are also seeing a rise in cases. Despite China’s strict zero-Covid strategy, for example, cases still increased fivefold in recent weeks. This prompted the country to shut down some large factory cities.
South Korea, also a model country for controlling the virus in the early days of the pandemic, is likewise in a dire situation. On March 17, cases reached their highest yet at 620,000 — a large jump from the 380,000 cases just the week prior. Deaths are also at a new pandemic high despite high vaccination rates (86 percent of their population is fully vaccinated while 63 percent has received booster shots) as well as strict mitigation measures including mask mandates and border control.
This surge, seen around the globe, is ringing alarm bells for experts tracking the pandemic.
“When South Korea, a model country for the pandemic has [more than] 400,000 new cases in a day, leading the world per capita, you take notice,” Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of Scripps Research Translational Institute, said.
Dr. Topol also warned that cases in Europe are indications that the United States could follow suit, as it has done so in previous surges.
“What happens in the UK and Europe doesn’t stay in the UK and Europe,” he said.
The Philippines might likewise not be spared despite getting past the previous Omicron surge. According to Dr. Tony Leachon, former advisor to the country’s COVID-19 task force and one of the country’s foremost public health experts tracking the pandemic, surges in neighboring countries should be watched closely.
In an interview with COMMONER, Leachon said that “travel guidelines and border control should be improved now, given the proximity to South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong.”
What’s causing this surge
Leachon believes that the global surge we are seeing now can be linked to the BA.2 variant — a subvariant of Omicron that is thought to be around 30% more infectious. This subvariant, combined with the original Omicron variant, was also one of the culprits to the surge that the country saw earlier this year.
So will there be a new surge in the Philippines soon?
For Fr. Nicanor Austriaco of OCTA Research, it is “likely that we will have no surge for a while.” And unless it threatens our hospitals, Austriaco said, “the increase in cases should not be a cause of concern.”
But variants are not the only cause of the surge, according to Leachon — travel restrictions and loose pandemic protocols contribute to it as well.
“International travel facilitates the variant transfer particularly now that restrictions are loosened up,” said Dr. Tony Leachon. “The other countries are also loosening up on their protocols to reopen the economy,” he added.
Many European countries, in particular Netherlands, Austria, and the United Kingdom have let go of various pandemic restrictions including mask and vaccine mandates. In Asia, South Korea is letting go of many of its strict control measures against the pandemic including lifting travel bans for select groups and extending operation hours for food establishments. Now, these countries are seeing fresh waves.
Election activities, loose travel restrictions as threats
In South Korea, the increase in cases was preceded by a historic presidential election on March 9. Before the casting of ballots, the country saw tens of thousands of citizens gathering at sorties as a show of force for their respective candidates. By March 12, South Korea recorded more than 380,000 cases. By March 17, the cases broke records at 670,000.
According to Dr. Leachon, the same can be true for the country.
“The local election campaign sorties and the DOT loosened travel guidelines are potential threats,” he told COMMONER.
This means that, despite the country’s coronavirus task force floating the possibility of placing the country on Alert Level 0, we may not be ready.
“The pandemic is not yet over. Alert Level 0 status will entail 90% vaccination of the population,” Dr. Leachong said. “We are not yet on endemic stage. Alert level 0 can trigger [an] increase in mobility which can lead to viral transmission, particularly with the local election roll out,” he added.
Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Francisco Duque III said that Metro Manila and 47 other areas may remain under Alert Level 1 until the end of President Duterte’s term.
“I think it is the prevailing sentiment in the IATF that no further de-escalation beyond Alert Level 1 will happen till after the elections in May,” said Leachon.
Aside from a potential surge in the country, there’s also the possibility that another variant of concern could pop up anytime due to the spread of Omicron worldwide.
“The pandemic is not over. It may not be over for the next many months,” WHO’s Dr. Rajendra Yadav said. “We have seen huge surges in Japan, Malaysia, and [South] Korea. So when we have these surges, there’s always a chance that we may have a new variant of concern. Then it may come to the Philippines.”