By JAVIER CÓRDOBA and CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN, Associated Press
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) — In Costa Rica, officials are encouraging those infected with the coronavirus to skip voting in upcoming national elections. On the other side of the world, Beijing is locking down residential communities as the country anxiously awaits the start of the Winter Olympics on February 4.
In Latin America and Asia, where the omicron variant is making its latest appearance, some countries are imposing such restrictions while others are loath to place new limits on populations already exhausted by previous constraints.
Omicron quickly swept through the places it first hit, such as South Africa, the U.K. and the United States, pushing daily cases far higher than at any time during the pandemic.
The Americas reported nearly 7.2 million new COVID infections and more than 15,000 COVID-related deaths over the past week, the Pan American Health Organization said Wednesday. Coronavirus infections across the Americas almost doubled between January 1 and January 8, from 3.4 million cases to 6.1 million, PAHO said.
Infections are accelerating in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, and hospitalizations are rising in Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, said PAHO Director Carissa Etienne. The Caribbean islands are experiencing their steepest increase in COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, Etienne noted.
“Although omicron infections appear to be milder, we continue to urge caution because the virus is spreading more actively than ever before,” Etienne said.
Infections are also increasing in Asia, including in the Philippines, which has seen its worst coronavirus outbreak in recent weeks.
Countries in both regions are searching for a mix of restrictions that their exhausted populations will accept and that won’t inflict undue damage on their economies.
“We’re already going on three years of the pandemic and the population is tired,” said Brazil’s president of the Council of State Health Secretariats, Carlos Lula. “There is no space for many restrictions. We’re going to have to face a third wave with precautions like masking, distancing and vaccination.”
Argentina and Mexico also have largely ruled out imposing any national restrictions, instead banking on their vaccination campaigns and the apparently less severe symptoms of the omicron variant.
Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, having just emerged from a week of isolation after his second coronavirus infection in the past year, downplayed the threat. “It is demonstrable that this variant does not have the same seriousness as the earlier, the delta,” López Obrador said this week.
Antonio Pérez, 67, runs a small stand in a Mexico City market selling notebooks, pens and other school supplies. He was forced to shutter his shop for three months early in the pandemic, rocking him financially. But he agreed with the government’s decision then —a time when little was known about the virus’s spread and no one was vaccinated— and with the hands-off approach now, when most of the population is vaccinated and there is less pressure on hospitals.
Immunization, masks and social distancing are the way to go now, he said, speaking through his own N95 mask. “I don’t think you can do anything else.”
Some states in Brazil have reimposed restrictions but stopped short of closing down businesses as they did last year. Peru, however, has revived a nationwide curfew, and Ecuador has banned public and private events or large gatherings of any kind.
In Costa Rica, public health concerns are colliding with constitutional guarantees for the February 6 presidential and congressional elections. Authorities concede they can’t stop people from voting, but Eugenia Zamora, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, recently told news outlets that those who test positive for coronavirus should “abstain” from going out to vote.
Demographer Luis Rosero said that according to his projections, the new wave of infections could peak right around election day. Under current health protocols, those who test positive in Costa Rica are obligated to isolate.
Costa Rica’s daily confirmed infection totals have risen from fewer than 100 in December to more than 5,000 this month. So far, however, the government has imposed few restrictions, such as requiring soccer clubs to play without fans.
Two other Central American countries, Panama and Honduras, have not imposed any restrictions despite seeing their cases more than double during the past week.
Puerto Rico, among the hardest-hit places in the Caribbean amid the region’s current surge, tightened restrictions again this month after the U.S. territory saw its COVID-19 test positivity rate jump from five percent late last year to more than 40 percent in recent weeks.
Gov. Pedro Pierluisi has required that those working in the health, food, education, tourism and entertainment sectors get their booster shots, as well as public school students age 12 and older. He also reinstated a ban on alcohol sales from 12 a.m. to 5 a.m. and prohibited most businesses from operating during those hours.
In Chile, infections grew 151 percent in one week, but the only restriction the government has imposed so far is to lower the capacity limit for public spaces. The country has a high vaccination rate, with more than 92 percent of those 18 and older and 78 percent of minors having received two doses. The government started offering a fourth dose this month.
Still, in some South American countries, omicron is having a dire effect.
A major hospital in Bolivia’s largest city stopped admitting new patients because of a lack of personnel, and one of Brazil’s most populous states canceled scheduled surgeries for a month. Argentina’s federation of private health care providers estimates about 15 percent of its workers currently have the virus.
In Asia, South Korea actually eased its restrictions on gatherings slightly this week. But officials have expressed concern about a surge in infections over the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins at the end of the month, when millions of people usually travel across the country to meet relatives.
In China, Beijing has moved classes online and locked down some office buildings. Japan, meanwhile, is maintaining strict border controls as infections surge, but otherwise doing little more than shortening business hours for restaurants and bars.
Hong Kong authorities have banned indoor dining after 6 p.m. and ordered certain businesses, such as museums and gyms, to close until at least early February. The city is also culling small animals including hamsters and chinchillas and halting their import and sales after several hamsters in a pet shop tested positive for the coronavirus.
In the Philippines, officials this week started banning commuters who have not been fully vaccinated from riding public transportation in greater Manila, a region of more than 13 million people. The move sparked protests from human rights groups. Daily confirmed infections soared from a few hundred last month to more than 30,000 in recent days.
Roman Catholic Church leaders in the Philippines capital were forced to cancel the January 9 procession of the Black Nazarene, a centuries-old black statue of Jesus Christ, for a second year. Because the event is one of Asia’s biggest religious festivals, drawing millions of mostly barefoot pilgrims, officials feared it could become a superspreader during the omicron surge.
Warning that the sometimes-weaker omicron variant can still kill, President Rodrigo Duterte implored people to get fully immunized.
“If you’re vaccinated, you have a fighting chance. If not, we’ll be burying, filling our cemeteries,” Duterte said in televised remarks.
Sherman reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writers Débora Alvares in Rio de Janeiro; Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador; Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Dánica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Franklin Briceño in Lima, Peru; Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia; Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile; Gisela Salomon in Miami; Zen Soo in Hong Kong; Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines; Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo; and Tong-hyung Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.