COVID-19: Two Years On
Countries around the world implement different measures to adapt to the pandemic
When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, several countries had already shut their borders as infection rates started to spiral. The pandemic brought the world to a standstill, spurring lockdowns, isolation facilities, and a race to better understand the virus. Two years later, some countries are grappling with new waves of the virus due to newer variants, while others have started returning to some form of normalcy. WORLD’s international correspondents narrate how the pandemic continues to impact their different locations.
Grandparents hugged grandchildren for the first time in 700 days. Gifts of toy koalas and Australian foods like Vegemite and Tim Tams accompanied tears at the Sydney airport where the first international flight of tourists from Los Angeles touched down. It was one of 56 flights scheduled to arrive on Feb. 21 after a nearly two-year government ban on international travel. The return of tourists signals a return to normalcy in travel.
But not everything will go back to the way it was. Just two weeks before, Sally Gray handed the keys to Glenthompson Uniting Church to a new owner. The 105-year-old church is built from bricks made at the now-shuttered local brick factory. Glenthompson follows a trend of shrinking small communities. “But COVID was the last nail,” says Gray, former treasurer for the church. “No services meant no money to pay for power or water.” The remaining members attend church online out of concern for their health.
Three million people in the country of 25.7 million have contracted the novel coronavirus. A quarter of the 4,912 deaths have occurred in aged care facilities. After a concerted push for vaccinations, 94% of Australians over 16 years old are double vaccinated. The government now pushes booster shots and jabs for kids.
Victoria resident Tamara Cuthill, 37, chose to not be vaccinated because of her pregnancy. Medical exemptions to the vaccine are rare and temporary. Religious exemptions are not an option. Before the recent easing of restrictions, Cuthill could not enter the public library, retail establishments, or cafés because they required proof of vaccination. Failure to comply would net her a fine of $1,000. Businesses could suffer fines up to $109,000 for defying or not following orders.
When churches were allowed to meet in groups larger than 25 vaccinated people, Cuthill couldn’t go. Some churches held multiple smaller services where vaccination status didn’t need to be checked, but Cuthill resents the forced segregation between vaxxed and unvaxxed.
Pastor Andrew Grills planted City on a Hill in Geelong, Victoria, seven years ago. With 450-500 weekly attendance in early 2020, the church launched a fourth Sunday service. And then COVID hit.
Church leadership grew strained over the logistics of church life online. “But the far more serious issue,” says Grills, “was answering ‘How do we respond to the government and its mandates?’” Some church leaders saw government restrictions as persecution requiring civil disobedience while others considered it a matter of public health dictating compliance. Most of the church held views somewhere in between.
For Grills, it was a season of grief, navigating the extremes and living in a no-win situation. The church left the issue of vaccination to each member’s conscience and raised tens of thousands of dollars to support those who would lose their jobs by refusing to be vaccinated.
Today, services are 20 percent smaller. Many meetings retain an online option for attendance. New people attend the church after moving to the area, but Grills says the deeper change is that the pandemic highlighted the fringe attenders.
“The cultural Christian has evaporated,” says Grills. Their disappearance emphasizes the importance of smaller communities within the church, since those who were already invested in gospel communities generally came through the pandemic well.
Phillipa Harrison, managing director of Tourism Australia, expects tourist numbers to reach pre-pandemic levels in two years. The rebound in the church will likely take longer. Church growth post-pandemic will require building—and rebuilding—relationships. — Amy Lewis
Hong Kong, China
The city of 7.5 million is struggling in its fifth wave—the worst by far—after the highly transmissible Omicron variant entered the community. Daily cases are surging to thousands, and experts predict they won’t peak until the end of March. The healthcare system is buckling: Some hospitals ran out of space and had to keep COVID patients, including frail seniors, in beds outdoors in drizzling, 60-degree windchill conditions for several days.
China, insisting on a zero-COVID policy, dispatched medical teams from the mainland to Hong Kong. Over 68 percent of the city’s population is already fully vaccinated with the Chinese Sinovac or Pfizer-BioNTech. Hong Kong will implement mandatory universal testing in March. In the meantime, it is scrambling to build more quarantine facilities that will house even asymptomatic patients.
As of Feb. 22, Hong Kong recorded 66,574 cases and 350 deaths. The city’s government has imposed the strictest restrictions yet: Residents need to use a vaccine pass and a contact-tracing app to enter most places, including supermarkets, group gatherings cap at two people, restaurants limit diners to two per table and stop dine-in service after 6 p.m., and no more than two households can gather in private settings.
Schools and churches have already returned to online; employees work from home; recreational venues are closed.
Until January, Hong Kong kept the pandemic under control and saw long stretches of few to zero local cases. That changed when several aircrew members flouted quarantine rules by dining out. Another traveler completed her hotel quarantine, but only after her release did she test positive for Omicron.
The Delta variant is also circulating. After a pet store employee tested positive for Delta, officials euthanized 2,000 hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas linked to her store in an attempt to curb potential animal-to-human transmissions.
Exacerbating the outbreak were the Chinese New Year celebrations in early February, as families and friends gathered for meals and visits.
The tighter control now includes churches: Only paid staff are allowed on premises. For one international church, that means the volunteers who make up the worship team can no longer return to church to film the music segment of the online service. It has to reuse video from previous recordings.
Suzanne Lee, a pastoral worker for that church, feels conflicted about enforcing the vaccine pass once in-person services resume. Citizens can be exempted from the vaccine pass for medical reasons, but Lee, herself vaccinated, thinks some might refuse the shot for theological or political reasons. It would be terrible to have to turn those visitors away, but the church also doesn’t want to risk being shut down for breaking the rules, said Lee.
Lee also knows what it’s like to go through one of the world’s longest quarantine requirements for travelers. She began the 21-day hotel confinement in August after visiting her elderly mother in California. Lee ate cold meals and tried to exercise, but the room was small. Lee felt the isolation was “like jail,” and “by the third week, I was climbing the walls!” she said.
Travelers now quarantine for 14 days, but some business executives and expats have already pulled out of the international financial hub due to the difficult travel restrictions. — Erica Kwong
“It’s enormous,” said Jonathan Meyer, talking about Switzerland’s Feb. 16 decision to drop almost all COVID restrictions the following day. Meyer is pastor of Action Biblique de la Servette church in Geneva, Switzerland. After two years of working through administrative hurdles to keep the church open, “It’s just enormous that we won’t have to deal with them anymore,” Meyer said.
The Swiss are especially ready to bid farewell to the COVID pass. A phone app that documented digital vaccination or recovery status particularly annoyed citizens in a country where people generally follow the rules but highly value individual liberty. Authorities required the pass for restaurants and gatherings over 50, including worship services. The Servette church, which had pre-COVID weekly attendance of 180 people, is now at 80.
“We had to choose whether to have two smaller services or to use the COVID pass,” said Meyer. Church leaders discussed the matter with unvaccinated members of the congregation, who were understanding of the situation. “They opted to view the online service, but came to weekly home group meetings and smaller gatherings to stay connected to the life of the church,” said Meyer.
Servette church leaders recently decided to stop livestreaming their worship service, except for specific cases. “The life of the church must exist in relationships, and for that we want to encourage people to return in person,” Meyer said.
One important Swiss difference from the United States in handling the pandemic: Recovery from the illness was considered as equal to a first dose of vaccination, and a doctor’s attestation of recovery was enough for the official COVID pass.
Another important difference was the Swiss authorities’ attitude toward schools. Reflecting on the last two years, Swiss health minister Alain Berset said the worst day of the health crisis was when he had to tell schools to close. Initially closed in March 2020, schools reopened two months later and have stayed open the remainder of the pandemic amid public agreement that it’s in everyone’s best interest. “We can’t imagine something worse for a society than to negatively impact the educational possibilities and equal opportunities for children,” said Berset.
Travel restrictions and restaurant closures hit the tourism industry—an important part of the Swiss economy—particularly hard, cutting revenues by half the first year of the pandemic. Last winter, Switzerland opened its ski resorts, irking its Alpine neighbors who’d decided to keep theirs closed.
This year, the tourists are back. On a February weekday the parking lot of the mountain resort town of Laax boasted license plates from seven foreign countries. A saleswoman in the ski rental shop says this year is already outpacing last year for business. “Last year there were a few international tourists, but they had to do so many tests,” she said. The lifting of the mask mandate in shops is another sign of a return to normal. “It’s nice to smile at people. Some people still come in with masks. We respect that,” she saic, “and we’ll put ours on if they prefer.”— Jenny Lind Schmitt
A blend of singing and instruments resounded from the Celebration Church, tucked inside a garden on a quiet street in Utako, Abuja, on a Sunday morning.
A church attendant stood at the entrance, pumping sanitizer into the hands of the arriving congregants. Inside, other ushers directed them toward single silver chairs as the marquee draped in white fabric gradually filled up.
They lifted their hands, some dancing, as they sang together. During the second two-hour Sunday service, one of the pastors directed worshippers to pray for Christians worldwide before the visiting minister stepped up to the podium.
Celebration Church reflects the growing signs of some normalcy across the capital city two years after the pandemic started. Across the city, people dressed in headscarves and Sunday outfits entered taxis to get to church.
Pastor Damilola Praiseworth said Celebration Church nearly doubled in October 2020, when it resumed physical gatherings after lockdown measures ended months earlier. The church strengthened its online services during lockdown, with members also gathering in smaller prayer groups.
“It strengthened our communal life,” he said.
It’s a similar dynamic across the city. While some public places still implement social distancing or mask regulations, such cautions don’t apply in open markets or at public transport hubs. It worsened during a crippling fuel scarcity in February. At Abuja’s popular Airport junction, passengers jostled each other and crammed into the few available cars and tricycles after the shortage made public transport scarce.
Nigeria has recorded about 254,124 infections and 3,142 deaths since the pandemic started. Only 5.1 percent of Nigerians are vaccinated. The daily infection rates now average 39 cases, leading many to conclude the pandemic phase of the virus is over.
Experts have said the infections are likely undercounted and also pointed to the continent’s younger demographic, amid other factors. In February, WHO’s Africa director Matshidiso Moeti said African nations are moving into “what might become a kind of endemic, living with the virus.”
Dr. Francis Maduekwe, director of clinical services at St. Charles Borromeo Specialist Hospital in Nigeria’s Anambra state, similarly pointed to the region’s temperate climate and diet as possible factors. But he noted a lot remains unknown. “The real pathology of COVID isn’t clear to most of us,” he said. “What we’re doing is our best.”
In September, the federal government issued a Dec. 1 deadline for government workers to get vaccinated. Some offices have continued to implement the mandate and 72-hour testing for the unvaccinated, but the implementation process has mostly stalled in many workplaces.
Authorities also maintain that vaccinated international travelers pay for testing on their second day in the country, while the unvaccinated isolate for seven days and get tested twice after arrival.
In January, Chika Opiti traveled from Abuja to Anambra to coordinate one of Nigeria’s typical two-day weddings for a client. It resembled what the events planner called a “pre-COVID wedding”—open to all guests without limitations.
Pandemic restrictions hit Nigeria’s extravagant events sector hard. Opiti saw clients slash bookings for 500 guests down to 20 people in their living rooms.
She now offers clients hand sanitizer at event halls or even walk-through disinfectant tunnels, if they want. “Things might go back to normal,” she said, “but I don’t know how soon.” — Onize Ohikere
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