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A look at how other parts of the world are dealing with omicron


A tsunami of cases - that is the world health organization's prediction for the weeks ahead as the omicron variant fuels a surge of COVID infections around the world. More than a million cases are being reported globally every day - highest number since the pandemic began - and we have brought in a few of our international correspondents to check how some other parts of the world are dealing with omicron.

With me now, Eleanor Beardsley in France, Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem and Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Hello, friends.




KELLY: Eleanor, I'm going to let you start. How are things in France and the rest of Europe for that matter?

BEARDSLEY: Well France just set a record in the last 24 hours, Mary Louise - 208,000 cases. And that is, by the way, an all-time European daily record since the start of the pandemic, say officials. The health minister called it dizzying. And the prime minister says the country is being hit simultaneously by delta - that's not done yet - and omicron that's revving up.

Elsewhere on the continent, omicron is also propelling a surge. Britain, Denmark, Greece, Italy and Spain all set records for new daily cases this week. And of course, Mary Louise, these are the official numbers, and they're said to be way below what the true number of cases are.

KELLY: Daniel, turning to you, you're not there yet - cases not exploding in Israel, at least so far. Is everybody just holding their breath?

ESTRIN: Well, it's coming. I mean, there's this very strange disconnect between what the public health experts are saying and how ordinary people are behaving. If you listen to the health experts in Israel, they say that the omicron emergency has already begun. Infections, they think, will explode in about two weeks. I asked one of the government's COVID advisers, what are my chances of catching omicron. And he says as a vaccinated adult, I'll probably have a 10- to 20% chance of catching it, which seems pretty high.

And so what is the government doing? Well, Israel restricted travel in and out of the country. That has slowed down infections for just a few weeks. But now omicron is spreading. Israel is not imposing many public restrictions. So for instance, the police canceled this big Jewish religious festival that's supposed to happen next week. There was a big uproar, so the festival is going to happen.

And Israel is not canceling New Year's Eve parties either. Neither are Palestinian authorities. Friends of mine, Israeli and Palestinian, are still planning to go party for New Year's. And last night, I was at a music concert. Everyone had to be vaccinated or test negative to get in. But I was one of the few who wore a mask inside.

So there's just this feeling, Mary Louise, of, like - of a collective shrug among the public that, OK, so if omicron hits me, if I'm vaccinated, I probably won't get that sick is the feeling. And then you hear the health advisers begging people, don't go to big parties.

KELLY: Anthony, what is ringing similar? What sounds very different from where you are? Because for - Japan, for example, has had a similar strategy with the whole limiting travel in and out of the country.

KUHN: Yeah. Well, COVID case numbers in East Asia as a whole have been pretty low by U.S. and European standards, and their vaccination rates are quite high. But Japan, South Korea, China - they're all struggling by their own standards. South Korea, for example, just saw the worst wave of infections of the pandemic so far this month. Cases have come down a bit, but authorities are not saying they're past the peak yet. So restrictions on gatherings in business hours that had been eased have been ramped back up and are going to stay there for a while. South Korea has fully vaccinated more than 90% of its adult population, and yet...

KELLY: Ninety, huh.

KUHN: ...The part that has not been vaccinated - that includes, you know, older citizens who are still getting their third shots or teenagers - that has left enough room for mostly the delta to spread. Omicron cases are low here. They say it will eventually become the dominant strain. They're just trying to put that off.

Japan is in a really interesting situation. Their case numbers peaked just after the Olympics finished in August as the Paralympics were going on, and then right after that, they just crashed. They plummeted by 99% due in part to the speed-up of vaccinations before the Olympics. They're at their highest level now in two months in Tokyo, which has had the most cases. And the government is telling people, do not go out traveling at New Year's, but train stations and highways, especially heading out of Tokyo, have been packed.

KELLY: Daniel, back to you. You were talking about travel restrictions. You were talking about the collective shrug that many people in your part of the world are feeling. What - you know, the government authorities can't afford to do a collective shrug. What is the strategy if and when cases do explode there?

ESTRIN: It's going to depend on if hospitals get overburdened. We should see by mid-January whether Israel places more restrictions on the public. But right now, what Israel is doing, it's speeding up booster shots. So Israelis can now get a booster after three months. In the U.S., the wait time is still six months. Israel is also starting to give additional booster shots, so a fourth shot for people with suppressed immune systems. And Israel could eventually offer that fourth shot to other parts of the population.

And Israel has also signed a deal with Pfizer. It's one of the first countries to get its hands on Pfizer's new pill Paxlovid, which is supposed to help high-risk COVID patients stay out of the hospital.

KELLY: Eleanor, I mean, you're already in an omicron wave. What is the government doing now that you're in the thick of it?

BEARDSLEY: Well, you know what, Mary Louise? European countries are doing different things, trying to preserve their economies and keep the spread to a minimum. But there are different strategies, some more draconian than others. The Dutch are in a full lockdown. There are curfews in Denmark, Ireland and parts of Spain. Finland just sealed its borders. And generally, travel restrictions between countries have been heightened. Some countries have banned tourists from other countries. It's all so very hard to keep track of.

And I'll give you an example. I spoke with a Dutch tourist in France. His name is Jan Schouten, and he kind of summed it up with a bit of humor.

JAN SCHOUTEN: The Austrians don't want us as of last Saturday, but France still wants us. But don't mention to people that we're here, right (laughter)?

BEARDSLEY: In France, the government is trying to let people breathe a little. They're trying to control the pandemic through vaccines instead of curfews and lockdowns. They're speeding up vaccination of children and shortening the interval for booster shots. And in mid-January, the unvaccinated will no longer be able to circulate most probably with a negative test. You'll have to be vaccinated to go into public places.

And Mary Louise, I'm actually at a ski resort right now in the French Alps where downhill skiing has been banned since March 2020, but it's back open now. There's just some new gear you have to have. You have to wear a face mask on those ski lifts and out on the slopes when you're in line, and you have to have - along with your lift pass, you have to have a vaccine pass. But people seem happy to comply.

KELLY: Eleanor living her best life during the pandemic. Anthony, how about where you are? Daniel's got his New Year's parties. Eleanor's on the slopes. What's the mood where you are in South Korea? Anything giving you hope?

KUHN: Well, I think this has been true all along throughout the pandemic. As much as people have griped about their government's performance, whether it's, you know, slow rollouts or perceptions the government has been too weak on COVID, all they have to do is look at the case numbers in Europe and the U.S. and realize that they're really not doing that badly. Case numbers, deaths - all of these are just a fraction of what they've been in the U.S. and Europe.

Both Japan and South Korea got off to slow starts vaccinating their people. They were low on purchasing them and applying them, but now they've all pulled way ahead of the U.S. And it's certainly prevented a lot of deaths and severe cases.

KELLY: NPR's Anthony Kuhn, Eleanor Beardsley and Daniel Estrin, thanks to all three of you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome, Mary Louise.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

KUHN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUM SONG, "WE HAVE A MAP OF THE PIANO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.