BERLIN: The WHO warned on Tuesday that the Omicron coronavirus variant could lead to overwhelmed healthcare systems even though early studies suggest it sparks milder disease, as China and Germany brought back tough restrictions to stamp out new infection surges.
China put hundreds of thousands more people under lockdown, while infections hit new highs across Europe and in several US states. Covid-19 surges have wreaked havoc around the world, forcing many nations to make tough choices between economically punishing restrictions and controlling the spread of the virus.
The United States has halved the isolation period for asymptomatic cases to try and blunt the disruption, while France has ordered companies to have employees work from home at least three days a week.
Contact restrictions were in place in Germany for the second year in a row heading into the New Year, as Europe’s biggest economy shuttered nightclubs and forced sports competitions behind closed doors.
Despite facing a much smaller outbreak compared with global virus hotspots, China has not relaxed its “zero Covid” strategy, imposing stay-at-home orders in many parts of the city of Yan’an.
The hundreds of thousands of affected residents there joined the 13 million people in the city of Xi’an, who entered a sixth day of home confinement as China battled its highest daily case numbers in 21 months.
“I’m about to be starved to death,” wrote one Xi’an resident on the Twitter-like Weibo platform.
“There’s no food, my housing compound won’t let me out, and I’m about to run out of instant noodles... please help!” Many Xi’an residents have similarly complained on social media about the restrictions, which include a ban on driving and only one member of a household permitted to go outside for groceries every three days.
This lockdown is the most sweeping in China since the similar-sized city Wuhan was cut off from the world in the early days of the pandemic.
The surges in many countries have been propelled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, with the Netherlands and Switzerland both saying that it has now become the dominant strain in their countries.
Greece meanwhile reported a new daily record of 21,657 cases, which health authorities said was linked to the rise of Omicron. The WHO warned against complacency even though preliminary findings suggest that Omicron could lead to milder disease.
“A rapid growth of Omicron... even if combined with a slightly milder disease, will still result in large numbers of hospitalisations, particularly amongst unvaccinated groups, and cause widespread disruption to health systems and other critical services,” warned WHO Europe’s Covid Incident Manager Catherine Smallwood.
To hold back the tide, European nations brought back curbs with painful economic and social consequences.
Facing record-high infections, France stopped short of issuing a stay-at-home order but called on employers to make staff work from home three days a week where possible.
Finland on Tuesday said it would bar unvaccinated foreign travellers from entering. Only residents, essential workers or diplomats will be exempt.