The discovery of four cases of the Omicron variant in Ottawa confirms what infectious disease experts had already assumed: A new iteration of the COVID-19 virus is spreading. And all around the world political leaders are asking themselves: What should we do next?
In my neighbourhood, among family and friends, we were approaching Christmas 2021 with weary relief. Adults are fully vaccinated and parents have booked appointments for their children. The most vulnerable are getting their booster shots while the rest of us wait our turn.
The kids are so happy to be back in school, seeing their friends again. They are catching up, both academically and psychologically. People are making plans for holiday gatherings and New Year’s Eve parties, though scaled down from years past.
But now, uncertainty. The World Health Organization warned Monday that the Omicron variant first identified in South Africa last week poses a “very high” global risk and could produce infection surges with severe consequences. Israel, Japan and Morocco have already closed their borders to all foreign travellers. Others are bound to follow.
There is plenty of reason for hope, however, while researchers scramble to assess how much of a threat Omicron poses. Authorities are working on worst-case scenarios because COVID-19 has taught us we need to. But the new variant may not be as infectious or dangerous or vaccine-resistant as those scenarios assume. Even if it is, populations are vaccinated at a high level in Canada and elsewhere in the developed world, which could limit the impact of the variant, even if it does jump the immunity barrier. And vaccine manufacturers are already racing to tweak their products.
We also need to be clear-eyed about how much, or how little, emotional resilience remains in our population. Can we ask our children to return to virtual learning? Can we as adults endure the psychic strain of another lockdown?
The Canadian and global economies are creaking back to life, inflation and supply-chain disruptions notwithstanding. Employers are testing new models for a partial return to work. Arenas, stadiums, bars and restaurants are full once again. Can we reverse that?
But there is also the hard reality that any time governments have held back on imposing restrictions, in the hope that the next wave won’t be all that bad, they’ve lived to regret it.
And remember: While some of us will grumble if we have to return to working from home and ordering takeout, others don’t have that luxury. The nurse, the doctor, the personal support worker, the cashier, the truck driver – all the essential workers remain at greater risk of Omicron infection than the rest of us.
Our hospitals were returning to normal. Will the ICUs fill up again, forcing the cancellation of so-called elective procedures? Our governments were winding down income supports. Will they have to wind them back up again? If they do, how much fiscal room is left for the deficits that result?
If you are a prime minister or president, a premier or governor, what do you do: Lock down now, to limit the impact of an Omicron-fuelled fifth wave, knowing that the whole thing might turn out to be a false alarm, or carry on and hope for the best, knowing you risk the worst?
In the past, waiting and hoping has not ended well. But in the past we weren’t as thoroughly vaccinated.
We can guess that in such places as Florida, people will just carry on, risking the price of lives lost rather than sacrificing personal freedom, while other jurisdictions will be more likely to impose restrictions.
Omicron reminds us that this pandemic is far from over. Vaccines are a miracle, blunting the impact of the disease. But they are not infallible. The effects of COVID-19 will be with us for months, even years. The goal is not to make it go away, but to make it manageable. And we might not be there yet.
In the meantime, if you are one of the few remaining who resists getting vaccinated because you don’t want what you wrongly think is an unproven substance in your body, take heed: Another variant is among us, and you are at high risk. Book your appointment now.