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Countries reimpose lockdowns with omicron spread


COVID infections are surging around the world. According to the World Health Organization, there's been a 70% increase in COVID-19 cases over the course of a week. With that comes a series of new government restrictions in country after country. NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien joins us. Jason, thanks for being with us.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: It's good to be here.

SIMON: We say restrictions. We're talking about a lot of lockdowns too, right? What do they look like?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, in some places, full-on lockdowns are back. You know, in several cities in China, people have been ordered not to leave their homes at all for several days at a time. Hong Kong has basically banned all foreigners from entering the city. You know, even Hong Kong residents are not allowed to return to the city unless they quarantine for 21 days at their own expense at a government-approved hotel. And when cases are popping up in Hong Kong, the city has been locking down entire apartment complexes until everybody gets tested. Then in Ontario, Canada, the province this week shut down schools, closed bars, gyms, museums. In South America, Peru's imposing a new nightly curfew. They're even, like, sending out soldiers to enforce it. So while this isn't happening everywhere, you are seeing a tightening of COVID social measures in many places around the globe.

SIMON: Are there differences between the restrictions we're seeing now and those that existed earlier in the pandemic?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, the restrictions now have a very different goal from the early days of the pandemic. I was talking with Tom Hale. He runs a project called the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. And apart from China and a few other places, he says the goal of these current COVID mandates, restrictions - it's no longer to try to stop viral transmission entirely.

TOM HALE: Now they're being used, really, to try to ease pressure off of health care systems during surges. So it's very much the case in most European countries. It's not like they think they want to eliminate COVID. It's that they're trying to keep the hospitals from overflowing.

BEAUBIEN: And one other key thing now is that many of these new restrictions - they're applied differently between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. So in the Philippines, for instance, there's this new order that the unvaccinated must stay at home except for attending to essential tasks. You know, in other places, quarantine requirements are shorter or maybe even nonexistent for people who are vaccinated. So that's obviously a big difference from lockdowns that we saw earlier in the pandemic.

SIMON: Jason, Australia has some of the toughest anti-COVID restrictions in the world, and Novak Djokovic, the great tennis player, discovered this on Wednesday. He showed up to defend his title at the Australian Open in Melbourne and ended up in immigration detention.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. Australia requires everyone who comes into the country to be vaccinated. All the details haven't come out, but apparently, Djokovic had been granted an exemption on health grounds. But then there was a lot of pushback from ordinary Australians. Australians have been going through incredibly strict lockdowns over the last two years, and now the new reality in most of Australia is you have to show that you're fully vaccinated just to sit down in a cafe or eat in a restaurant, grab a drink at a bar or even go out and get a haircut.

SIMON: Jason, what's your estimate as to how long some of these restrictions might last? As I don't have to tell you, people are just getting pretty weary.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there definitely is fatigue with all of this. But Tom Hale at Oxford - he says he expects that we're going to be living with some form of lockdown - COVID restrictions for the foreseeable future.

SIMON: NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien, thanks so much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.