Countries across the Asia-Pacific region are scrambling to slow the spread of the more infectious Delta variant, reimposing restrictions and stay-at-home orders in a stark reminder to societies that have only recently begun to reopen that the pandemic is far from over.
In Australia, outbreaks of the variant have resulted in strict lockdowns in four major cities: Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, and Darwin. Malaysia’s government announced on Monday that nationwide stay-at-home orders would be extended indefinitely. In addition, Hong Kong officials have banned flights from the United Kingdom, where cases of the Delta variant, which was first identified in India, are on the rise.
Soldiers in Bangladesh are preparing to patrol the streets to enforce stay-at-home orders, with new cases rapidly approaching their peak in early April. “The Delta variant of Covid-19 is dominating,” said Dr. Robed Amin, a spokesman for the health ministry, adding that testing indicated the strain was responsible for more than 60% of new cases.
The restrictions and lockdowns have dashed hopes across the Asia-Pacific region, where many countries escaped the worst of the pandemic’s initial spread last year. Residents are now frustrated by what some call their countries’ pandemic regression, as other parts of the world return to normalcy.
Marcus Low, a restaurant owner outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s largest city, bemoaned the pandemic’s fourth lockdown. According to New York Times data, daily infections in Malaysia peaked in early June, but even after weeks of lockdown, new cases have dropped by only 5% in the last two weeks. Only 6% of the country’s 33 million people are fully immunised.
“My restaurant is known for its hospitality and shared dishes, which are the polar opposite of social distancing,” Mr. Low explained. This lockdown “might be the last straw” for his and other struggling small businesses, he said.
Others blamed a return to restrictions on slow vaccination drives.
“If we can get a really high vaccination rate, that completely changes the game,” said Hassan Vally, an associate professor of epidemiology at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “In some ways, where we are now is no surprise,” he said, with less than 5% of Australia’s population fully vaccinated.
The Delta strain is one of several “variants of concern” identified by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States. Though estimates of its infectiousness differ, health officials say the variant could be 50 percent more contagious than the already-fast-spreading Alpha variant, which emerged in Britain last year.
Covid-19 vaccines are still largely effective against the Delta variant, according to studies, though protection is significantly lower for those who are only partially vaccinated. However, several countries’ experiences show that the Delta variant can spread quickly among the unvaccinated, including children.
“Anywhere you do vaccination, the disease will be pushed into the unvaccinated population,” Raina MacIntyre, a professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said.
Countries that have vaccinated a sizable proportion of their populations are moving forward with reopening plans. In the United Kingdom, where the Delta variant is now responsible for nearly all new cases, officials say they still intend to lift most remaining pandemic restrictions on July 19. The number of new cases has more than doubled in the last two weeks, but officials believe the country is still well protected, with nearly half of the population fully vaccinated.
“While cases are now increasing, the number of deaths remains mercifully low,” Sajid Javid, the country’s health secretary, said on Monday.
According to experts, as long as the virus circulates, it can acquire mutations that pose new challenges. In India, where a devastating second wave killed thousands of people every day this spring, Maharashtra state has reinstated partial stay-at-home orders in response to the emergence of what has become known locally as “Delta Plus,” a strain that carries a spike protein mutation found in another variant.
Indian health officials are concerned that Delta Plus will spread even more quickly. “The possibility of a third wave exists,” said Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray.