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COVID-19 surges are forcing countries around the world to adapt

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Omicron is wreaking havoc in some parts of the world, while others are barely feeling its impact. In Europe and the U.K., cases continue to rise, and governments there are either imposing new limits on travel or gatherings or they're planning them. China has shut down Shiyan, a city of 13 million people, and closed its border with Vietnam. In South Asia, however, few omicron cases have been identified, and COVID numbers are near the lowest of the pandemic.

We're joined now by three of our colleagues from NPR's international desk for an update. Frank Langfitt covers the U.K., Eleanor Beardsley is based in France, and Lauren Frayer covers South Asia. Frank, we're going to start with you. Omicron cases are spreading quickly in the U.K. How high are those numbers?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah, they're the highest we've ever seen here, nearly 120,000 just yesterday. But there is some encouraging data, A. Several new studies have come out here just this week, suggesting that omicron is a lot less severe than the delta variant. The U.K. Health Security Agency put out a report yesterday saying 50 to - people were 50 to 70% less likely to need to go to the hospital if they contracted omicron versus past variants. Jenny Harries - she runs the agency. She was speaking to the BBC this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNY HARRIES: I think there's a glimmer of Christmas hope in the findings that we published yesterday, but it definitely isn't yet at the point where we could downgrade that serious threat.

LANGFITT: And she's - you know, she says, A, it's a serious threat, of course, because it is - the omicron variant is so infectious, and so it could still end up putting a lot of people in the hospital here. Bed occupancy rate right now in England is about 95%, so there is a concern that once again, the health care system could find itself under a ton of pressure.

MARTINEZ: Eleanor, what's the situation looking like in the rest of Europe?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, you know, it's a real patchwork, both of severity and restrictions, and we're seeing a disparity between countries. Where I am in France, things are not too dramatic, and in Italy and Spain - seem to be doing better than other places for now. It seems like the tighter restrictions in these countries and the consistency of keeping them in place have paid off again for now. In October, Italy became the first major European country to require a vaccine pass at all workplaces, and France instituted a vaccine pass in July. So if you want to go out to bars, restaurants, just about anywhere, you had to have a vaccine or a negative test.

But other countries are in worse shape. You know, Frank spoke about Britain. Denmark is being hit hard and has instituted a curfew, along with Ireland. Germany has been hit and is tightening restrictions. And the Netherlands, A, just went into full lockdown to save their hospital system, said the prime minister. And I spoke with Dutch journalist Thijs Niemantsverdriet about his country's tough lockdown right before Christmas. He said people are blaming the government for letting it get this bad because they were sloppy and erratic. You know, vaccines were high, but they let the masks - the face mask go completely. Here's what he said.

THIJS NIEMANTSVERDRIET: Face masking - you know, wearing a face mask wasn't obligatory anymore after the end of the summer, whereas in most European countries it was still - you know, in public spaces and in shops, it was mandatory. In Holland, it was completely abolished.

MARTINEZ: Let's go to India now, where the health system was overwhelmed by COVID earlier this year. Lauren, how is India faring with omicron, and are people still masking there?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Yeah. So in Mumbai, where I live, masks are still required, even outdoors. So if I go for a walk in my neighborhood, I've got to be masked. Otherwise, there are these police on motorbikes that come up and give you a fine. A night curfew starts in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, tomorrow, and this is despite cases being near historic lows. We were seeing about 5,000 COVID cases a day. We saw a slight rise today to about 6,600. That's in a country of nearly 1.4 billion people, and only a few hundred of those are confirmed to be omicron, this new variant.

Still, you know, this year, India suffered the biggest and deadliest COVID wave in the world, and it was hugely traumatic, and people don't want to repeat that. There's a hope that people still have antibodies from that. But also, it could be that just omicron hasn't yet arrived in India. About 60% of Indian adults are fully vaccinated. Now, that's only two shots. There is no - there are no boosters in India yet, nor is India vaccinating children or anyone under age 18. So that leaves hundreds of millions of people vulnerable. And as you know, India has some of the most densely populated cities in the world, where delta spread like wildfire. I don't want to imagine what omicron will do. Scientists say it's much more contagious.

MARTINEZ: Eleanor, do countries with strict vaccine rules and high vaccine rates feel that maybe they can escape the worst of omicron?

BEARDSLEY: You know, not at all. I mean, you know, this is a global pandemic, and we've seen that. There's a feeling that it's bought some time, but no one can escape this, you know, pandemic as it careens around the globe. It's good news that it may not be as deadly, but, you know, just in the last 24 hours, France had 94,000 cases, and that's the highest ever. The French government is meeting on Monday after Christmas to reassess the situation, and the spokesman said nothing is off the table as far as new restrictions. And yesterday, the front of - the head of France's scientific council had an ominous warning. He said, you know, life could be severely disrupted in January, with a huge mass of omicron cases, over 100,000 a day, and people could be out sick in real key sectors like, you know, transportation, security, food distribution. He said it could cause real chaos. So honestly, people are just bracing themselves for worse.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. And Lauren, you mentioned how relatively low COVID and omicron numbers are in India right now, but, you know, I can't get it out of my head - and I'm sure, you know, the rest of the world can't either - India's horrible COVID wave earlier this year because it's got to still be raw in people's memories. Is the government proposing any new action?

FRAYER: It is, yeah. So Prime Minister Narendra Modi held an emergency summit with the chief ministers - those are like the governors of the states - yesterday. He's ordered states to shore up their oxygen supplies, to ramp up testing. But, you know, Modi's in a bind because he wants to avoid mistakes from earlier this year, when his government didn't lock down early enough and was criticized for it, but he also doesn't want to be alarmist. Like, India has had really strict lockdowns, and cases are finally down. Stuff is finally opening up. Tourist visas resumed last month for the first time in 20 months. I personally was invited to three weddings happening this week alone, all of which were postponed from earlier in the pandemic. People want to get back to life.

Modi himself has been holding election rallies. The country's biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, which is bigger than most countries - a population 220 million people - holds state elections early next year. The high court there is urging the prime minister to halt those campaign rallies and maybe even postpone the elections. Modi isn't likely to do that. He spoke at a big rally yesterday. But, you know, this night curfew takes effect tomorrow, and they will be limiting huge gatherings. So I think it's 200 people - more than 200 people can't get together in any one place. We'll see if that holds.

MARTINEZ: Are you going to any one of those weddings?

FRAYER: No, I'm spending Christmas with my family.

MARTINEZ: That's good, that's good. Just wondering, just wondering.

FRAYER: I wish I could.

MARTINEZ: Good, good. You're safe with your family.

FRAYER: Unfortunately.

MARTINEZ: Frank, with the new year approaching and omicron still a big threat, how is the British government responding?

LANGFITT: Well, just like Lauren was saying in India, politics are a big issue here. Boris Johnson, the prime minister - he's been holding off on any new restrictions for England. Christmas is tomorrow. He knows that there would have been an uproar if he set in new limits. But we may see new restrictions next week in England, especially on pubs and restaurants. And already other parts of the U.K. are - have already announced restrictions. Scotland is going to be shutting down nightclubs for three weeks, and in Wales, they'll be limiting the size of groups in pubs, theaters and restaurants.

MARTINEZ: Frank, you live in the U.K. I mean, how are people reacting to this latest wave of infections?

LANGFITT: Well, I mean, particularly in London, which has been the hardest hit, people are not shopping as much, which is rare. I'm actually going to be going out doing a little bit of shopping after this, and I'll be interested to see how many people are out and about. Young people have been particularly hard hit. But one thing, A, is that people are not as fearful as they have been in past waves. Part of that is that we're not seeing the kind of big numbers in hospitals and certainly some of the big deaths that we saw. The other thing is the vaccination rate. More than half the people here over the age of 12 have had boosters. They're administering 800,000 boosters a day right now, and they're going to continue on Christmas Day.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Frank Langfitt, Eleanor Beardsley and Lauren Frayer, my thanks to all three of you.

FRAYER: Thank you.

BEARDSLEY: Good to be with you.

FRAYER: Happy holidays.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, A.

BEARDSLEY: Happy holidays, yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.