Last month, at a White House press briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked if COVID-19 would ever be vanquished.
“It is going to be very difficult – at least in the foreseeable future, and maybe ever – to truly eliminate this highly transmissible virus,” said the chief medical adviser to the President of the United States.
What Dr. Fauci had to say was likely depressing news for many. But he was only echoing what epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists have been stressing for some time: COVID-19 and its mutant iterations will be with us for some time, and possibly forever.
We need to begin processing that reality.
News of a worrisome COVID-19 variant, now known as Omicron, seems to have shattered the illusion many of us were operating under that we are close to the end of this thing. The fact is, it’s difficult to say precisely where we are with the pandemic, except in a lot better place than we were when the virus first exploded on a world unprepared for its stealth and deadliness.
We don’t know enough about Omicron yet to say whether the global panic its arrival has set off is justified. It’s the World Health Organization’s job to warn us when these viruses are detected, but this time around, it may have unwittingly caused worldwide alarm by saying the variant posed a “very high” risk to the planet while at the same time admitting there was much uncertainty about its lethalness and whether vaccines offered protection against it.
The WHO’s strategy now seems to be: sound the alarm, find out what we’re dealing with later. Then again, the WHO is in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation, so I can forgive them here.
Omicron, and the fear it’s incited, should be something of which we make good use. It can serve as a reminder of what experts have been telling us for some time – it’s pretty unlikely we will ever go back to a zero-COVID world.
It’s time we started to embrace the likelihood that these masks we must put on to enter restaurants and jump on buses aren’t coming off this year or next. It may be something that becomes normalized. Maybe in the best-case scenario, we see COVID-19 evolve into a flu-like, seasonal phenomenon that we take precautions to avoid getting and spreading.
Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome, a global health foundation based in London, recently told Vanity Fair magazine: “We have to start thinking, planning and coming to grips in every way that this is now a human endemic infection and it’s never going to go away.”
At best, it can be mitigated with vaccines and personal health precautions in the same manner we deal with flu, which kills an average of about 3,500 people a year in Canada. You limit your chances of getting it or becoming deathly ill from it by receiving a flu shot. (In the United States, between 12,000 and 52,000 people have died annually from influenza in the last decade.)
Until we get more information on Omicron, we need to reduce the level of anxiety it has spawned. There is no evidence it is some Frankenstein killer that is far deadlier than any of the strains before it. Nothing close to that. It’s very likely a variant like Delta that scientists predicted would emerge until we get more of the planet vaccinated.
That’s a challenge in Africa, which is affected by high vaccine hesitancy and supply inequity.
The best outcome from the Omicron would be if it finally convinced the vaccine-hesitant to get a jab. And for those who’ve only one shot to get a second. And for those who qualify for a third shot already, to get it. That is really the best thing all of us can do in the face of this new development.
We need to continue to be vigilant, continue to be respectful of our neighbours, continue to be kind and continue to understand that complacency is our true enemy here. COVID-19 is not ever likely to be eradicated from the planet. It will become something that we can quite easily live with, like we do any number of other diseases.
In the meantime, I am going to continue to live my life just as I was before I knew anything about Omicron. That means going to restaurants, having a pint at the pub with friends, playing golf when it’s not raining sideways and working out at the gym.
Shrivelling up and staying inside is not an option. Heading out with my mask and common sense every day is the only way to go.
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