Omicron and Delta spell return of unpopular restrictionsFriday, December 03, 2021
PARIS, France (AP) — Greeks who are over age 60 and refuse novel coronavirus vaccinations could be hit with monthly fines of more than one-quarter of their minimum pensions — a get-tough policy that the country's politicians say will cost votes but save lives.
In Israel, potential carriers of the new Omicron variant could be tracked by the nation's domestic security agency in seeming defiance of a Supreme Court ruling from the last go-round.
Weekly protests in the Netherlands over the country's 5:00 pm lockdown and other new restrictions have descended into violence, despite what appears to be overwhelming acceptance of the rules.
With the Delta variant of COVID-19 pushing up cases in Europe and growing fears over the Omicron variant, governments around the world are weighing new measures for populations tired of hearing about restrictions and vaccines.
It's a thorny calculus made more difficult by the prospect of backlash, increased social divisions and, for many politicians, the fear of being voted out of office.
“I know the frustration that we all feel with this Omicron variant, the sense of exhaustion that we could be going through this all over again,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Tuesday, two days after the Government announced that masks would be mandatory again in stores and on public transportation and required all visitors from abroad to undergo a COVID-19 test and quarantine. “We're trying to take a balanced and proportioned approach.”
New restrictions, or variations on the old ones, are cropping up around the world, especially in Europe, where leaders are at pains to explain what looks like a failed promise: that mass vaccinations would mean an end to widely loathed limitations.
“People need normality. They need families, they need to see people, obviously safely, socially distancing, but I really think, this Christmas now, people have had enough,” said Belinda Storey, who runs a stall at a Christmas market in Nottingham, England.
In the Netherlands, where the curfew went into effect last week, mounted police patrol to break up demonstrations against the new lockdown, which is among the world's strictest. But most people appeared resigned to rush through errands and head home.
“The only thing we can do is to listen to the rules, follow them and hope it's not getting worse. For me it's no problem. I'm a nurse. I know how sick people get,” said Wilma van Kampen.
Huburt Bruls, mayor of the Dutch city of Nijmegen who banned a protest last weekend, said he sympathised with the frustration but was prepared to carry out the national rules at home.
“There was a lot of disappointment in the effects of vaccination. Everybody did their best, we had one of the highest rates of vaccinations and it wasn't enough. Infections are higher than ever. I myself was a little disappointed, but we have to look ahead,” he said.
In Greece, residents over 60 face fines of 100 euros (US$113) a month if they fail to get vaccinated. The fines will be tacked onto tax bills in January.
About 17 per cent of Greeks over 60 are unvaccinated despite various efforts to prod them to get their shots, and nine in 10 Greeks currently dying of COVID-19 are over 60.
“I don't care whether the measure will cost me some extra votes in the elections,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Wednesday after lawmakers passed the measure. “I am convinced that we are doing the right thing, and I am convinced that this policy will save lives.”
Employing a carrot instead of a stick, Slovakia's Government is proposing to give people 60 and older a 500-euro (US$568) bonus if they get vaccinated.
In Israel, the Government this week approved resuming the use of a controversial phone-monitoring technology to perform contact tracing of people confirmed to have the Omicron variant.
Israeli rights groups have decried the use of the technology as a violation of privacy rights, and others have noted that its accuracy in indoor places is flawed, leading to large numbers of people being wrongly flagged. The Supreme Court earlier this year issued a ruling limiting its use.
“We need to use this tool in extreme situations, and I am not convinced we are in that kind of situation,” Justice Minister Gideon Saar told Israeli public broadcaster Kan this week.
In South Africa, which alerted the World Health Organization to the Omicron variant, previous restrictions included curfews and a ban on alcohol sales. This time, President Cyril Ramaphosa is simply calling on more people to get vaccines “to help restore the social freedoms we all yearn for”.
And Germany yesterday imposed strict new limitations on the unvaccinated, excluding them from nonessential stores, restaurants, and other major public venues. They can go to work only with a negative test.
The legislature is expected to take up a general vaccine mandate in coming weeks.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the measures were necessary because hospitals risk becoming overloaded: “The situation in our country is serious.”
Infections have again topped 70,000 in a 24-hour period.
Officials have also agreed to require masks in German schools, impose new limits on private meetings.
In the US, there is little appetite in either political party for a return to lockdowns or strict contact tracing. Enforcing even simple measures like mask-wearing has become a political flashpoint. And Republicans are suing to block the Biden Administration's new get-vaccinated-or-get-tested requirement for large employers.
President Joe Biden, whose political fate may well hinge on controlling the pandemic, has used a combination of pressure and urgent appeals to induce people to get their first shots or a booster. Also, the administration is working toward requiring that all air travellers to the US be tested within a day before boarding their flight, instead of the current three days.
But Biden has said the US will fight COVID-19 and the new variant “not with shutdowns or lockdowns but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more”.
“If people are vaccinated and wear their masks, there's no need for the lockdowns,” he added.
The rise of the new variant makes little difference to Mark Christensen, a grain buyer for an ethanol plant in Nebraska. He rejects any vaccination mandate and doesn't understand why it would be needed. In any event, he said, most businesses in his corner of the state are too small to fall under the regulations.
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