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Network News • 07-11-2021

Covid Grinch may steal Christmas this year

Author: George Mangion - Senior Partner, PKF Malta
Published on The Malta Independent on 7 November 2021

This week we heard a declaration from the WHO concerning several factors responsible for the increased spread of the coronavirus disease in Europe. A major factor is the low vaccination rates in some countries in East Europe.

Can this be one of the causes for another fourth surge of the virus? It is interesting to observe how a number of countries in Europe, with low vaccination rates, are facing renewed lockdowns and a drop in commerce. Starting with Ukraine, only seven million of its population of 41 million has been inoculated. Other factors contributing to a mutation of the virus is the recent lifting of lockdowns and other travel restrictions by many European countries.

Naturally, acceding to a strong temptation to revive tourism, some governments have eased restrictions. This is contributing to the surge in cases and deaths in the continent. In a few countries, including Malta and Singapore, the high vaccination rates have apparently raised the herd immunity such as breaking Covid’s usual two-month cycle.

Locally, we are also witnessing a slight acceleration of new cases. The number of active virus cases, at the time of writing, was 271. On balance, locally there is a risk of experiencing a significant surge in new cases this winter with more hospitalisations and mortality due to high virus circulation.

In passing, one has to congratulate the Maltese health authorities for achieving a speedy vaccination programme. However, on a European scale, we notice that only 61% of the total population has been fully vaccinated and only three countries (Malta, Portugal and Iceland) have vaccinated more than 75% of their total population. There is considerable variation in vaccine uptake across countries and within regions, resulting in large proportions of the EU/EEA population remaining susceptible to infection.

Another skeleton in the closet is the need for effective vaccination against seasonal influenza. A cocktail of two potent viruses may cause havoc on individuals and healthcare systems. Facing a high probability of this occurring in eastern EU member countries, particularly the Baltic States, they are putting health systems under increasing pressure, prompting governments to re-impose restrictions.

Will this ruin the festivities of Christmas with lockdowns and curfews that plagued countries such as Australia and New Zealand last summer? Let us take a look at the research, which I gathered on eastern European countries. Starting with Romania, it is reporting higher deaths and new cases of daily infections. This is overwhelming the country’s ailing health care system.

Let us stop and think about why Romania is so vulnerable to infections. Statistics show that only 37% of adults, around 19 million people, have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 compared to an EU average of 75%. Next comes Bulgaria with the lowest share of its population being vaccinated.

Last week, Bulgarian health authorities reported 4,979 new coronavirus cases, the highest daily total since late March. As can be expected, a high proportion of these new infections are reported among unvaccinated persons. In Estonia, the virus has pushed the government to discuss potential new measures to tackle the surge of new cases.

Slovakia is also facing a new wave of infections, which recently prompted the government to re-impose restrictions on its five northern counties. Moving westward to Poland, the government's health minister has warned that the country is facing an explosion of coronavirus cases that may need drastic action after recording more than 5,000 daily new infections for the first time since May.

It comes as no surprise that some countries are occasionally facing resistance from their citizens against vaccination. This has complicated matters and added more pressure on the authorities to impose tougher enforcement towards the wearing of face masks and keeping social distancing.

Typically, the Czech government is one of several European countries that is tightening anti-Covid measures as case numbers rise. In Lithuania, they are facing challenges of overcrowding in hospitals. This exacerbated the tension as there is less space to accommodate patients with other health problems. People are also being advised to work from home for at least half the week and avoid rush-hour travel.

The Netherlands, with almost 84% of the adult population vaccinated, now plans to bring back full restrictions. Like Malta, the Netherlands previously ended social distancing provided persons can present coronavirus passes showing proof of vaccination, recovery from the virus or a negative test for restaurants, bars and festivals. Moving on and we note that China, nicknamed the mother of the Covid virus, is facing a new wave of the Delta variant.

The virus has reached Wuhan, in Hubei province, the Chinese city where Covid-19 first emerged, with seven people testing positive for the virus. According to Chinese state media, the city had seen zero locally transmitted infections since June 2020. The Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines – two of the most commonly used jabs in China – have been proven to be 50% to 79% effective in preventing symptomatic Covid infection in clinical trials around the world.

A number of large cities such as Nanjing, East China's Jiangsu Province are seeing such a strong penetration and authorities fear that if not contained it may continue to spread to more regions in the short term. Lately, more cities strengthened their prevention measures fearing the latest outbreak in Nanjing can spread to nearly 20 cities across not excluding provinces including Central China's Anhui, Southwest China's Sichuan, Northeast China's Liaoning as well as Beijing. Internal tourism is one of the main factors that is fanning the spread of the Delta virus. Authorities suspect that this cycle has occurred during summer when tourists gather at scenic spots.

In fact, it was first detected at Nanjing Lukou International Airport where there is a large passenger flow. Due to Delta’s strong characteristics, the Nanjing outbreak has spread to other regions within and outside the Jiangsu Province. The health authority in Southwest China's Guizhou Province asked residents not to travel outside the province, especially to cities that have reported Covid-19 cases.

Naturally, with the advent of Christmas, it is feared that more travel restrictions will be dictated on tourist agencies to avoid organising tours to high-risk areas. Meanwhile, domestic online travel service providers immediately announced refund measures. For example, Alibaba-backed Fliggy said tourists who last summer planned to travel to scenic spots located in risky areas can have their tickets, as well as cancellation of hotel bookings, refunded.

As a measure of prevention, all of Beijing's air, bus and travel links to areas with positive cases have been forbidden. All tourists have also been banned from entering the capital and officials are only allowing essential travellers with negative Covid tests to enter.

In conclusion, the cautious mood taken by a number of countries makes us fear that Christmas this year will never reach the same level of joy and fulfilment unless the nasty Grinch is tamed.

Author: George Mangion - Senior Partner, PKF Malta
Published on The Malta Independent on 7 November 2021
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