Let's all celebrate responsibly
The Year of the Tiger arrives tomorrow and people, particularly in East and Southeast Asian countries, are ready to celebrate Lunar New Year 2022. For many of us, however, it's going to be another year of quiet celebration under the influence of the coronavirus pandemic.
Travel restrictions remain in place in some countries while the prolonged outbreak has destroyed the festive mood for many and the enthusiasm for family gatherings.
In China, the Spring Festival, as it is also known, is the world's biggest annual human migration, with people making more than a billion trips in normal years. But the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant has led governments and companies to press workers to stay put over the holiday, which lasts from Jan 31 to Feb 6, though the travel season starts earlier and ends later.
Strict measures have been taken, including in one extreme example threatening travellers who "maliciously return home" with quarantine and detention. More generally, local governments are responding with requirements such as 14-day quarantines, seven days of self-isolation and multiple PCR tests. Beijing, which is gearing up for the Winter Olympics starting on Feb 4, has banned arrivals from provinces with even one locally transmitted case.
The scale of migration is smaller in Vietnam where the holiday known as Tet started on Saturday. Hanoi has taken less heavy-handed action so far, but like its bigger neighbour it has imposed some of the strictest Covid-related measures in the world.
Local governments have tried to head off the mass travel that fuelled past outbreaks by sending letters asking people not to come home for the holiday. Labour unions have also stepped in; for example, a branch in Dong Nai, a key southern industrial province, will not arrange buses home for workers as it used to.
In both countries, thousands of workers who go home for the break fail to come back once it is over. This year, in particular, less generous financial incentives offered by companies could convince migrants to go home despite the logistical hurdles.
Tough measures also help to keep the factories of global brands there -- among them Apple, Samsung and Adidas -- free from Covid, and to avoid the disruption of lengthy quarantines for workers travelling between provinces. Failure to do so risks disrupting global supply chains, which could spur inflation and hamper economic recovery.
What confuses me is that while the Vietnamese government asks millions of workers to sit tight and avoid travelling, it is easing procedures for foreign workers and the estimated 140,000 overseas Vietnamese who want to return home for the holidays.
Expatriates and their families with residence cards or visas no longer need approval from immigration authorities to re-enter the country; those who are fully vaccinated can quarantine at their residence for only three days.
Further steps to fully reopen the country are expected as early as April, with all domestic and international travel restrictions lifted.
More surprisingly, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh recently made a maskless appearance at a live televised event as he shook hands and hugged award winners on a stage. Other participants at the Jan 20 event held by Pham Nhat Vuong, founder of Vingroup, Vietnam's largest conglomerate, were also encouraged to remove their masks as they all had tested negative. After that, more than half of the guests could be seen removing masks and chatting with those nearby, according to a report by Nikkei Asia.
Vietnam officially shifted from a zero-Covid policy last October, acknowledging that it will have to live with the virus if it wants to revive the economy. The high inoculation rate guided the decision to relax restrictions. The Ministry of Health says 93.4% of adults have received two jabs, while 13.1% have received a booster. Children aged between 12 and 17 are now being vaccinated, and those aged 5 to 11 will follow soon.
But to me, leaders in the government and private sector should set a good example for people in their countries to keep their guard up against the virus. Wearing marks in public places is still strongly recommended by most experts, including the World Health Organization.
Lowering our guard could trigger a fresh outbreak and harm the economy more. Measures that could spark controversy or confusion should be avoided to save the country from another Covid-related hit or a major lockdown.