Although some governments and journalists have drummed up public anxiety and panic, and even ramped up border controls, in response to the identification of a new variant of Covid in South Africa, the reality is that the emergence of the Omicron variant is probably the best piece of pandemic news we’ve had since SARS-CoV-2 first came to international attention in January 2020.
Below, I briefly set out five reasons for celebrating the arrival of Omicron:
1. Omicron is far less virulent than previous variants.
Omicron, by all accounts, is far less virulent than previous variants of SARS-CoV-2.
This can be established by comparing the typical symptoms associated with Omicron with its main predecessor, Delta. For example, Omicron, in spite of the fact that it appears to be more transmissible, typically does less damage to the lungs.
We can also look at average length of hospital visits with Omicron - this, thankfully, is considerably shorter.
Reduced severity can also be established by comparing case hospitalisation ratios and rates of ICU admission, which are dramatically lower with Omicron than Delta.
Indeed, the amount of expert consensus on the reduced virulence of this latest variant is impressive. I need not labour this point any further, but I would refer the reader to this more in-depth discussion by Dr John Campbell.
2. This is likely the beginning of the end of the pandemic.
According to the usual progression of a pandemic, the last phase of infections would likely involve a much milder variant, spreading through a large part of the population, and giving rise to a more sustainable and less pathogenic presence of the virus in the population.
The virus will not be eliminated: it will simply become equivalent to a common flu or cold, that “does the rounds” but encounters enough immunity in the population to leave the vast majority of people relatively unscathed. To put it technically, the virus is now becoming “endemic.”
There seems to be a a lot of optimism among experts that Omicron spells the last phase of the pandemic, certainly the last chapter of severe impact of Covid-19 (compared with, say, a common flu or cold) on hospitalisations and deaths. Here is how one Harvard expert explains endemicity:
The expectation that COVID-19 will become endemic essentially means that the pandemic will not end with the virus disappearing; instead, the optimistic view is that enough people will gain immune protection from vaccination and from natural infection such that there will be less transmission and much less COVID-19-related hospitalization and death, even as the virus continues to circulate.
3. Public authorities will now find it harder to justify draconian public health restrictions.
As the objective impact of Covid-19 on hospitals undeniably peaks and starts to drop off dramatically (some experts estimate this should happen in many places in early 2022 - in some places, such as South Africa, it has happened already), it will be increasingly difficult for public authorities to convince the public to submit to draconian rules like lockdowns, business closures, school closures, and community mask mandates. They have never really bothered to scientifically establish a causal connection between heavy-handed NPIs (non-pharmaceutical interventions) and disease reduction - and the evidence, in my view, is most definitely not on their side - but the narrative somehow managed to survive. Even that false narrative will have a hard time surviving the effective end of this pandemic.
4. We should now have some emotional breathing space to interrogate the deeper reasons for the chronic crisis in public health and health services in Western nations.
As Covid-19 hospitalisation levels taper off, and the perception of a “Covid crisis” dwindles, the enormous fear and anxiety associated with Covid-19 will very likely decline (though the “hang-over” of fear will undoubtedly remain for a while in some proportion of the population), and people will be less primed to accept shallow propaganda designed to increase the power of rulers or conveniently scapegoat unvaccinated or unmasked citizens for the chaotic state of our hospitals. An atmosphere approaching normality should be able to settle in, and this will provide a breathing space for people to ask more objective questions about the deeper roots of our healthcare crisis.
Why have many parts of the world recently seen peaks in excess mortality that cannot be exclusively attributed to Covid-19?
Why are our hospitals overburdened every time we get a heavy flu season?
Why are so many patients on exasperatingly long waiting lists to see doctors?
Why were so many patients in care homes deprived of adequate medical care and protection at the height of the pandemic?
Why have governments failed to undertake necessary reforms to promote better and more efficient health services, for so many years?
Why were inexpensive, promising, and safe treatments for Covid-19 not aggressively developed and authorised early in the pandemic?
5. As Covid-related fear and anxiety subsides, it will be more feasible to hold governments accountable for their disastrous policy interventions.
During any major public crisis, governments can count on a large dose of public sympathy. This pandemic was no exception. At the height of the pandemic, virtually any penetrating criticism of government could be deflected or dismissed as “disloyal” or “conspiratorial.” Additionally, governments were able to use Covid as a scapegoat for all of their own incompetence and corruption.
The abuse of citizens’ right to medical privacy and informed consent, the destruction of small and medium businesses, the isolation and mistreatment of elderly patients, the forced separation of families, the abusive imposition of masks, the needless closure of schools, the use of manifestly flawed diagnostic tools, the manipulation of Covid statistics, the suspension of rule of law… All of this was routinely blamed on “the pandemic,” as though an insentient virus was what brought a whole society - young and old, healthy and sick - to its knees.
All of these scientifically weak and ethically questionable interventions, which up until now have been blithely attributed to an insentient virus, will start to be viewed in the cool light of day, once the dark, cold night of the pandemic passes.
I, for one, would not like to be part of the political elite that oversaw the dismantlement of civil rights when that cool examination takes place.
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