Coronavirus Pandemic: Hope and Caution

Covid-19 is very much present and infecting people out there

By Mrinal Roy

Ever since the spread of the Omicron variant in the world, infectious disease experts ventured to say that there just may be an end of the Covid-19 pandemic in sight. There is a muted hope that the spread of the Omicron variant infection in the world combined with the rising number of people that have been fully vaccinated will provide people some degree of herd immunity going forward. There is also hope that the next Covid-19 variants may be contagious but not cause as severe and deadly a disease. In such a situation, Covid-19 would become endemic akin to an influenza.

People are also suffering from coronavirus restrictions fatigue and are up in arms against questionable pandemic management decisions and repressive mandates which are seen as a restriction of fundamental rights and freedom. However, there is still the risk of the emergence of new variants which our protective immunity derived from vaccination and infection from Covid-19 cannot overcome.

Despite such potential risks, a series of countries are lifting Covid-19 restrictions. Last week, Switzerland lifted all its coronavirus pandemic restrictions except for the obligation of wearing masks on public transport or while visiting healthcare facilities. With presidential elections scheduled in April 2022, the French government announced that while remaining prudent, restrictions will be eased in February in stages over the next few weeks. Austria will lift most of its remaining restrictions by March 5.

Personal responsibility

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said earlier this week that he is scrapping the last domestic coronavirus restrictions in England, even as he acknowledged the potential for new and more deadly variants of the virus. He added that mandatory self-isolation for people with Covid-19 will end starting Thursday. Addressing MPs in the House of Commons he said that the country was ‘moving from government restrictions to personal responsibility’ as part of a plan for treating Covid-19 like other transmissible illnesses such as flu. He added: ‘We now have sufficient levels of immunity to complete the transition from protecting people with government interventions to relying on vaccines and treatments as our first line of defence.’

In a clear bid to bring Covid-19 related expenditure under control, Boris Johnson said that ‘people will still be advised to stay home if they are sick but will no longer get extra financial support introduced during the pandemic for those who miss work. As from April 1, lab-confirmed PCR tests for the virus will be available free only for older people and the immune-compromised. Government will also stop offering the public free rapid virus tests, though they will be available privately at a price, as is already the case in many countries.

Australia has reopened its international border to visitors this week for the first time in nearly two years bringing a boost to tourism. Australia imposed one of the world’s strictest travel bans in March 2020. Australia received about 9.5 million overseas visitors in 2019 earning revenues of $32 billion in 2018-19. The CEO of Australian Federation of Travel Agents cautioned that the shortage of trained staff would affect quality of tourism services and travellers’ experiences. He soberly predicted that the tourism industry would not be back to pre-pandemic levels until early 2024, assuming no new major outbreaks or variants do not bring back restrictions. The main sources of tourists are China, New Zealand, the United States, the UK, Japan, and Singapore. The UN agency’s World Tourism Barometer also predicts that world tourism will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

As evidenced by the lower than expected number of tourist arrivals in Mauritius since the opening of our frontiers, the recovery of the tourism sector to 2019 levels will probably take more time than envisaged and require well thought out and pointed marketing strategies to offer a competitive, memorable, culturally rich and exceptional holiday experience.

Ground realities

Despite the lifting of restrictions in some countries, coronavirus continues to be severe in Italy, making it the most-affected country in Europe as well as outside Asia. Recent statistics show that in February 2022 the number of new cases of infection increased in 47 countries whereas the number of new cases doubled in 14 countries. These countries are spread across the world and include Cambodia, China, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Belarus, Honduras and New Zealand. The 33 countries where the number of Covid-19 cases increased include Iran, Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Turkey, Vietnam, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Chile, Dominica and Guatemala. Only 3 out of 188 countries and territories have reported no new cases of infection for four weeks in a row. Covid-19 is very much present and infecting people out there.

This situation affects decisions regarding international travel and demands that countries exercise extreme caution and care to protect their population instead of rashly lifting essential sanitary protocols and indiscriminately removing travel restrictions. The new vogue mantra of ‘learn to live with Covid-19’ blithely echoed here must also take on board the hard facts of ground realities evidenced above.

It is equally high time to go back to work and pick up the pieces of a battered economy.

* * *

Risk of Armageddon in Ukraine

There is more to an armed conflict than meets the eye

The risky and endless game of brinkmanship between the US, Europe, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries and Russia over Ukraine could not last forever. The protracted stalemate had to fall apart and give way. Ukraine’s President Zelensky’s demands last week for a clear timetable to join NATO and an end to appeasement of Russia could but stoke and bring the conflict to a head.

Earlier this week, the Russian Security Council held an extraordinary meeting which was broadcast live to take stock of the reaction of the US and NATO to Russia’s request for security guarantees to comfort its concerns over NATO’s eastward expansion. The Russian Security Council was told that Western countries continued to ignore Russia’s fundamental security concerns. The Council also examined the request of the two Russian speaking breakaway ‘republics’ of Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine to recognize them. Amidst reports of hardships faced by the population in these regions including not having access to water and rising number of refugees arriving in Russia, the Council which includes the country’s top officials approved the recognition of the two ‘republics.’ which Russia has backed since 2014.

After informing French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz by phone, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed two decrees recognizing ‘the People’s Republics of Luhansk (LPR) and Donetsk (DPR)’ as independent and sovereign states. A Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance was signed between Russia and the heads of the two ‘republics.’ Russia’s parliament agreed to President Putin’s request to use the country’s military forces outside the country. The Russian President ordered Russian troops into the two ‘republics’ to ensure peace.
Will this potential game changer escalate the conflict?

Sanctions

As expected, the US, UK, the EU, and other western countries have imposed sanctions on Russia, after it recognised two rebel-held areas of Eastern Ukraine and sent troops there. The US barred ‘new investment, trade and financing by US persons to, from, or in’ the two Russia-backed breakaway republics. Germany has suspended the approval of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline meant to carry natural gas directly from Russia to northern Germany.

However, despite calls from Ukraine urging its western allies for tough actions, the steps taken by Russia have not triggered the full range of sanctions western nations have been preparing. Although more US troops could be sent in Eastern Europe, the US President has clearly stated that no US troops will be deployed in Ukraine as US and Russian troops shooting at each other would be a World War. According to a recent poll, 57% of Americans said the US should not send troops into Ukraine if Russia invades.

Big winners

There is more to an armed conflict than meets the eye. The big winners of any armed conflict and war are the largest weapons companies in the world. As the US gets more and more involved in the growing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, two of the largest weapons companies in the world, namely Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are openly telling their investors that tensions between the countries are good for business.

The Biden administration declared last month that as advanced weaponry including Javelin missiles (produced through a joint venture between Raytheon and Lockheed Martin) were being shipped to Ukraine, US military advisors will continue to stay in the country to presumably set up and teach the Ukrainian army how to use these weapons systems.

Interviewed on CNBC last month, Raytheon CEO when asked about the role the company could play in arming US allies said that ‘we have some defensive weapons systems that we could supply which could be helpful, like the patriot missile system or some of the radar systems.’ He spoke of the tensions in Eastern Europe and in the South China Sea and candidly added that ‘I fully expect we’re going to see some benefit from it.’

The chairman, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin suggested to investors that ‘this great competition between superpowers bodes more business for the company.’

As evidenced in so many war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Yemen, the losers and collateral casualties of armed conflict are always the people of these countries.

Will these developments strike a new balance of the power play in the region, or will the conflict escalate and trigger a destructive Armageddon?


* Published in print edition on 25 February 2022

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