As we learn yet another Greek letter through the new COVID-19 Omicron variant, around the world the new wave is starting to sound very familiar.
It’s been another 72-hour global moment.
It came in the days after the news first broke last Friday that B.1.1.529, named Omicron, had been identified by scientists in South Africa and assessed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a “variant of concern.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has supplied a series of these collective worldwide “moments:” from the first wave of lockdowns to the discovery that the vaccines were effective to the Delta variant’s new wave of infections.
Early evidence suggested the variant was spreading fast and scientists warned Omicron was the most heavily mutated version of the virus they had seen yet, raising questions about the efficacy of vaccines against it. But little is known so far and it will take weeks before we can be certain of the variant’s contagiousness and the actual danger it poses.
Omicron repeating history
Still, the discovery has nonetheless prompted a number of countries to quickly enforce bans on travelers from several southern African countries. Since then, several cases of the virus strain have been detected around the world, which is likely to prompt even more countries to implement restrictions as the heated debates over vaccines (both anti-vaxxers and access in the developing worlds) get even hotter.
Yes, it all starts to sound familiar. Just like when the Delta variant was discovered and with each new wave, history seems to repeat itself.
New cases and deaths, overwhelmed hospitals, restrictions, closed borders, the vaccine conundrum and the debate over mandatory vs incentive approach, protests ... which is likely to evolve to the point of declining case numbers, reopenings, discovery of a new variant and repeat all over again.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said the variant “should be a wake-up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot be allowed to continue” and called countries that had banned travel to African nations to reverse their decisions and instead support access and manufacture of vaccine doses for developing economies.
An international catch-22
“We are living through a cycle of panic and neglect,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a special three-day meeting of the organisation to discuss the handling of the new virus strain. But how do we break the cycle?
The news of the variant has once again highlighted inequalities in access to vaccines. While Western countries, already largely vaccinated, are debating plans about mandatory vaccination and speeding up booster shots, a large portion of the African population remain unprotected, giving time to the virus to spread and mutate.
There is still no global plan for getting out of it.
China’s daily The Global Times has pointed fingers at Western countries’ selfishness and mismanagement, saying that while they control most of the resources needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, “they have failed to curb the spread of the virus and have exposed more and more developing countries to the virus.” The Beijing newspaper touted China’s zero-COVID strategy as the “best line of defense” as Xi Jinping pledged to provide 1 billion doses to Africa.
For some, these inequalities and the reactions to the Omicron discovery have proved that despite being nearly two years into the pandemic, “there is still no global plan for getting out of it,” writes Jason Horowitz in The New York Times.
Keep calm and (try to) carry on
The WHO is now calling for a “coherent global approach” and the creation of a treaty to ensure sharing of data and technology, and equitable access to vaccines. For French daily Le Monde, “the fight against COVID-19 and its avatars cannot be conducted against the sole national framework. This global threat requires a response that is equally so, to avoid planetary uncertainty, disorganization and anxiety.”
In the meantime we need to “keep calm,” says Pia Heinemann in German daily Die Welt, as Omicron is “the new player in the pandemic” and there are still uncertainties about its dangerousness. Colombian daily El Espectador calls for “caution” on its Dec. 1 front page, reminding readers that the pandemic has also caused millions of cases of depression around the world.
Whatever the solution to his new challenge, one thing is certain for journalist Mathieu Bock-Côté writing in Canada’s Journal de Québec: “COVID must no longer be granted the right to serve as the main backstory of our collective life.”