Is a COVID Second Wave Dragging Asia Under?

After early successes in the region, reopening efforts are leading to new spikes from India to Australia.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, India
July 14, 2020, 9:59am
india covid
A health worker wearing protective gear sits on an ambulance next to the dead body of a victim who died from COVID-19 before the burial at a graveyard in New Delhi in May, 2020. (Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN / AFP)

The Asia-Pacific region’s much-feared second wave appears to be building.

With countries slowly reopening in a bid to stave off the economic hangover of coronavirus lockdowns, many—including ones that had earned praise for tamping down initial outbreaks—are experiencing spikes in new COVID-19 cases.

Australia, for instance, had been seen as a relative success story, keeping overall infections below 10,000 and its death rate—so far only 108 have died—enviably low. However, that began to change this week as new clusters emerged in the country's two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria.

Victoria, home to the city of Melbourne, was plunged back into lockdown last week amid an alarming rise in new infections. State authorities announced 270 new cases on Tuesday, the ninth consecutive day of triple-digit new infections, state broadcaster ABC reports.

Meanwhile, New South Wales, where Sydney is located, reported 14 new cases on Monday, many centered around a pub frequented by truck drivers hauling essential goods, authorities said. On Tuesday, the tally of new infections rose by another 13, with 10 of them linked to the pub cluster.

The cluster prompted new restrictions on pubs and other social venues in the state, including caps on attendance and the size of groups, the ABC reports. The country’s total infections stood at 10,251 as of press time.

Hong Kong had similarly drawn praise for its early efforts at keeping coronavirus infections down, all the more impressive given its proximity to China, where the outbreak began, and its high level of cross-border activity.

After an early spike peaking in March, the number of confirmed cases plateaued just north of 1,000 and largely held steady, with the city enjoying several multi-day streaks of no new infections. Work from home protocols and restrictions on social gatherings eased, but starting late last month, new cases, many of them locally transmitted, again began to spike.

The city has seen 182 new local transmissions since July 6, with 41 reported on Monday, a record high, the South China Morning Post reports. The latest spike in Hong Kong is technically its third wave, after a spike in cases in March as many Hong Kongers fled back home as outbreaks worsened in the West and elsewhere.

However, the dean of Hong Kong University’s medical school warned that the latest spike is more worrying than previous ones, as it represents “the start of a sustained massive local outbreak that we have never seen.”

Responding to the spike, the local government has temporarily reimposed restrictions on dine-in service at restaurants, and ordered other venues like bars and gyms to close entirely. The current tally of total confirmed cases stands at 1,521.

The Philippines, meanwhile, which imposed arguably one of the longest and strictest coronavirus lockdowns in the world, began easing its nearly three-month community quarantine on June 1, though many restrictions remain in place.

But in spite of its efforts, new infections have steadily risen since, particularly in July, sometimes by more than a thousand a day, with a one-day high of some 2,500 on July 8. Deaths have also spiked, from between five and 20 per day in June, to a high of 46 in one day on July 10.

Japan, meanwhile, has also reported a more modest, though still-troubling uptick in cases in recent days. On May 25, the country announced it would lift its state of emergency to resume economic activity, but since then, some prefectures have experienced increases in cases comparable to the pre-state of emergency outbreak.

In late June, daily new cases went from a lengthy run of mid-to-high double digits, to routinely breaking into triple digits, even going as high as 427 on July 10.

In India, the government is currently in the second phase of “unlocking” the country, despite experts insisting that its first wave of infections hasn’t even peaked. The country currently has the third most confirmed cases in the world—after the U.S. and Brazil—with nearly 907,000, and almost 24,000 deaths.

As a result of recent spikes in cases, however, Indian states and cities have been forced to go back under strict lockdowns. In Karnataka, where COVID-19 cases surpassed 40,000 on Monday after jumping by more than 2,000 in a single day, a week-long lockdown started on Tuesday. In Assam, 14-day lockdowns have been reinstated in the capital city Guwahati and Kamrup district.

The northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous, imposed a 55-hour lockdown that ended Tuesday, and parts of Kerala have entered a week-long “triple lockdown,” in which not only is movement restricted, but the houses of confirmed cases are also monitored.

Lockdowns, however, have long been criticized as ineffective as a sole means of mitigation.

“Lockdown doesn’t achieve anything until it comes with testing, tracing, isolating, and treating,” said Thomas Abraham, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Hong Kong and former consultant for World Health Organization. “It’s a means to an end.”

Dr. T. Jacob John, meanwhile, a virologist and former professor at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, told VICE News the peak of India’s first wave wouldn’t come for “another four weeks, by or before August 15.”

“More people will get infected post-peak than pre-peak in India,” he added.

Still, in spite of the inevitable upticks as lockdowns ease, Dr. Dale Fisher, a medical professor at the National University of Singapore and an authority on infectious diseases, said Asia was faring better than some places.

“The only way we can overcome this right now is if there is herd immunity,” he said, either through a vaccine, or by naturally building up antibodies as more people catch the disease.

“As long as countries can identify cases and shut down community cases, things should be fine,” he added. “Overall, Asia is doing very well because of community behavior: the community respects their government, and the government is giving clear instructions on what to do. In some countries, wearing a mask is merely a suggestion. In Singapore, it is part of the law. Small things like that make a huge difference in cases.”

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