The nightmare returns.
In Indonesia, gravediggers work late into the night because oxygen and vaccines are scarce. In Europe, countries are slamming their doors again, with quarantines and travel bans. In Bangladesh, urban textile workers fleeing an impending lockdown are almost certain to sow another spike in coronavirus in their impoverished home villages.
And in countries like South Korea and Israel, which appear to have largely defeated the virus, new disease clusters have proliferated. Chinese health authorities announced on Monday that they would build a huge quarantine center with up to 5,000 rooms for international travelers. Australia has ordered millions to stay at home.
A year and a half since it began racing around the globe at exponential efficiency, the pandemic is picking up again in much of the world, mainly driven by the new variants, particularly the highly contagious Delta variant, which was first identified in India. From Africa to Asia, countries are suffering from record numbers and deaths from Covid-19, even if wealthier nations with high vaccination rates have slacked off their vigilance, foregoing mask requirements and enjoying life on the road to normal.
Scientists believe the Delta variant may be twice as transmissible as the original coronavirus, and its potential to infect some partially vaccinated people has alarmed health officials. Unvaccinated populations, whether in India or Indiana, can serve as incubators for new variants that could evolve in surprising and dangerous ways, with Delta leading to what Indian researchers call Delta Plus. There are also the Gamma and Lambda variants.
“We are in a race against the spread of the virus variants,” said Prof. Kim Woo-joo, an infectious disease specialist at Korea University’s Guro Hospital in Seoul.
The political debates from Malaysia to the Seychelles – whether to introduce bans and mask requirements – reverberate in countries with far more resources, including plenty of vaccines. On Monday, health officials in Los Angeles County, where Delta variant infections are on the rise, urged residents, even immunized ones, to wear masks indoors. (However, many scientists say that masks are not required in areas where the virus is not spread.)
But while the new images from Nepal or Kenya of overcrowded intensive care units and dying doctors in the West are shaking up terrible memories, it is not clear whether they also provide a glimpse into the future.
Most existing vaccines appear to be effective against the Delta variant, and initial research suggests that those who are infected are likely to develop mild or asymptomatic cases. But even in the richest countries – with the exception of a handful of low-population nations – fewer than half of the people are fully vaccinated. Experts say that as new variants spread, significantly higher vaccination rates and more precautionary measures are needed to tame the pandemic.
The smoke that rises again from crematoriums in less affluent countries has highlighted the gap between the haves and the haves of the world. Large inequalities in economic development, health systems and – despite the promises of world leaders – access to vaccines have made the recent surge much bigger and deadlier.
“Developed countries have used up the available resources because they have the resources and want to protect their people first,” said Dono Widiatmoko, a lecturer in health and social affairs at the University of Derby and a member of the Indonesian Public Health Association. “That is natural, but from a human rights perspective, every life has the same value.”
And as public health officials keep repeating and the pandemic proves time and time again, no part of the world is safe as long as a region is affected.
When the Delta variant wreaked havoc in India this spring when the pandemic killed more than 200,000 people there – an official number widely considered too low – and crippled the economy, it also jumped across national borders and infected climbers Mount Everest, pro-democratic protesters in Myanmar and travelers to Heathrow Airport in London. Today it has been detected in at least 85 countries and is the dominant variety in parts of Europe, Asia and Africa.
In Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, the strong transferability of the variant became apparent.
In May, infections there were at their lowest level since the country was hit by the pandemic last year. In late June, Indonesia suffered record numbers when the delta variant caught on after a religious holiday that had scattered travelers across the archipelago. On Tuesday the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent warned that the country was “on the verge of disaster”.
Less than 5 percent of Indonesians have been fully vaccinated, and frontline medical workers have been vaccinated with Sinovac, the Chinese-made vaccine that may be less effective than other vaccines. At least 20 Indonesian doctors who received both doses of Sinovac have died. But with Western countries seemingly hoarding more effective vaccines, countries like Indonesia and Mongolia had no choice but to have numerous Chinese-made alternatives.
Last week, Hong Kong authorities suspended passenger flights from Indonesia, and they are doing the same with trips from the UK starting July 1.
In May, Portugal attempted to revitalize its tourism industry by welcoming sunbathers from the UK, despite reports of the spread of the Delta variant there. Within a few weeks, the British government had set up a quarantine for travelers from Portugal, including returning holidaymakers.
As the cases of delta variants increased sharply, Lisbon was closed on the weekend and Germany viewed Portugal as a “virus variant zone”. Now Portugal has withdrawn from its tourist reception and is demanding quarantine from unvaccinated British travelers.
Some Portuguese hoteliers are discouraged. Isabel Pereira, a guesthouse owner, said half of her bookings have been canceled and she understands the concerns of tourists.
“Unfortunately I can’t even tell you for sure what to expect tomorrow, let alone next week,” she said.
For others, the past repeats itself at turbo speed.
In Bangladesh, scientists found that nearly 70 percent of the coronavirus samples taken from the capital Dhaka between May 25 and June 7 were the Delta variant. Coronavirus test positivity rates this week are around 25 percent, compared to 2 percent in the United States.
On Wednesday, Bangladesh had its highest daily caseload ever. Numbers are expected to rise as migrant workers return to their villages ahead of a July 1 nationwide lockdown, potentially exposing these communities to the virus.
The nationwide closure means that all domestic public transport networks will be shut down and all shops will be closed for at least a week. However, given Bangladesh’s export-oriented economy stricken by the pandemic, the government has refrained from shutting down clothing factories and factories.
“They are hard working people,” said Mohammed Nasir, the former vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. “Your immune system is stronger.”
If there is a precedent in the history of the pandemic, just like prisons or mass religious gatherings, such crowded neighborhoods can turn into petri dishes of infection. However, many textile workers are desperate to keep their jobs, especially as annual bonuses will soon be due.
Despite promises from various countries and international organizations, the vaccine deliveries to Bangladesh were not exactly exhilarating. Less than 3 percent of Bangladeshis are fully vaccinated.
“We are working to strike a balance between life and livelihood,” said Mr. Nasir.
The coverage was contributed by Muktita Suhartono and Richard C. Paddock in Bangkok, Raphael Minder in Madrid, Amy Chang Chien in Taipei, Taiwan and Yu Young Jin in Seoul.