That now-familiar resignation-tinged refrain will be going around a lot into the new year: “Everyone is going to get Omicron eventually.”
It might be accompanied by other bromides, such as, “COVID is just like a cold,” “the case numbers don’t matter,” “we have to learn to live with the virus” and “restrictions are pointless now.”
But don’t succumb to the throw-in-the-towel cynicism. If you get COVID-19, don’t feel that all your sacrifices over the past two years have been for naught. And absolutely do not feel ashamed because you’ve contracted it despite having done all the right things.
Skip the guilt. Focus instead on the fact that, with the arrival of the Omicron variant, we’re dealing with a very different version of COVID-19 – a far more infectious one, making exposure far more likely, with a high risk of reinfection.
Yes, most of us will get COVID-19, even the most diligent among us. But catching a respiratory virus is not a moral failing. It’s just life during an evolving pandemic.
And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take precautions. It’s not a license to be irresponsible. On the contrary, vaccination, masking, avoiding large crowds, physical distancing, attention to ventilation and such have become even more important.
When the situation feels dire, as it often does these days, we need to seize some control where we can, and not lose hope. Get that booster when it’s your turn. Up your mask game to an N95. Limit your contacts, assuming that those around you may be infectious, even if they’re vaccinated.
The pandemic has been a cruel reminder that all our actions can affect others. Yes, the vast majority of COVID-19 cases are mild – that has been true since day one, and it remains true today, as is the norm for viral illnesses. But mild is a relative term. People with a mild case of COVID-19 can feel awful, with fever, cough, exhaustion and more; for most people, it is not like a common cold. And crucially, your mild infection could prove deadly to someone else, such as a frail elder or someone who is immunocompromised. We were acutely aware of our responsibility to keep others safe at the outset of the pandemic, during the strict lockdown period, but we’ve become more complacent over time.
And even if we’re all going to get infected with the Omicron variant eventually, it’s important that we not all get infected at once. That’s the only way we will keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed. If they are, there will be a lot of collateral damage.
Despite the smugness of vaccine skeptics about the growing prevalence of breakthrough infections, the fact that a lot of double-vaccinated people are contracting COVID-19 doesn’t mean vaccines don’t work – it only means they don’t work perfectly. For all their imperfection, vaccines have saved millions of lives. People who are vaccinated have far better outcomes than those who are not, including lower rates of hospitalization and death; that’s especially true for those who’ve had a booster. The number of COVID-19 deaths – more than 5.4 million globally, including more than 30,000 in Canada – could easily be many times higher.
When you’ve had two shots and still get sick, it feels like a betrayal; it can feel disappointing that the immunity they provided may be partial and time-limited. But they continue to be our best hope out of the pandemic. People getting infected in large numbers will also bolster immunity in the population, moving us closer to endemicity – a shift from pandemic to endemic that needs to be gradual, not irresponsibly brutal.
The public-health measures we embraced (or at least accepted with resignation) at the start of the pandemic bought us time and knowledge. Despite it all, we are in a much better place today than a year ago.
The advocates of a let-it-rip approach to COVID-19 were wrong in early 2020, and they’re still wrong now. Mitigation matters, individually and collectively.
So does counting cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Case numbers are not irrelevant; they represent real people, who have been really affected. Data must guide our response, because data gaps make for bad policy.
“We need to learn to live with the virus” has, throughout the pandemic, been coded language used by those who oppose public-health measures. It was clear then that this everyone-for-themselves approach would only accelerate the harm caused by the pandemic.
What we need is to continually adapt. To a certain extent, we need to normalize the notion that indeed, everyone may well get Omicron – but to understand that not through a lens of despair and giving up, but to show that we need to redouble our efforts to minimize the harm of this relentlessly wily coronavirus.
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