Omicron: Ad hoc emergency measures fail - GulfToday

Omicron: Ad hoc emergency measures fail

Illustrative image.

There is a new variant on the scene and its name is Omicron. Twenty-one months ago, WHO had declared Covid-19 an epidemic and the entire world moved out of its comfort zone into a paranoid state of uncertainty. And a mask descended on almost every face in the planet.

Now, on Nov 26th 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) designated the new variant –B.1.1.529 –as a variant of concern, and named it Omicron. This was undertaken on the advice of WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE).

Omicron, which was first sequenced in South Africa, is the fifth variant of concern. So far, the list of variants identified so far are:

Alpha – B.1.1.7 – first detected in the UK; Beta – B.1.351 – first detected in South Africa;

Gamma – P.1 – first detected in Brazil; Delta – B.1.617.2 – first detected in India; Omicron – B.1.1.529 – first detected in South Africa; [Omicron is the 15th Greek alphabet and uses the uppercase “O” and lowercase “o” symbols].

 Even though the research on Omicron is still under way, the COVID-19 emergency measures were quick to call out a worldwide alert, which led to the banning of international flights by the US from eight southern African countries, of which two, South Africa and Botswana, have reported cases.

And this despite the fact that it has been seen earlier that banning flights is not the solution neither does it limit the virus from transcending international borders. The political leadership of the developed world seems to adopt the view that it is better to be safe than sorry. In the 2009 essay on What is a pandemic?, Anthony Fauci, the White House chief medical adviser who led the US COVID-19 response, identified several elements that characterise pandemics, including “novelty, widespread geographic distribution, high attack rate, and low population immunity” . Yet in the essay, he skipped the issue of the implications of political decisions to label a widespread disease a pandemic.

According to Eric Reinhart, a physician and anthropologist at Northwestern University, “The thought is that if you can maintain a state of emergency, if you can make people feel the crisis, then you will be able to generate enough political momentum to institute effective policies to protect people.”

So much is riding on this mindset, such as global health alliances, and patent licensing for antiviral drugs. Domestically, in the US, free COVID-19 testing, vaccinations, and treatment are all emergency provisions. All this will cease once the WHO declares that the pandemic is over.

Omicron is seeing this drama playing out all over again. The same populations now staring at shortage or deprivation of vaccines or treatments have long been suffering and dying from diseases that are treatable in wealthy nations, such as tuberculosis, HIV, or diarrhoeal disease. The jury is still out whether or not Omicron ends up being a truly dangerous variant. What it has revealed on the world stage is that we are again leaning on ad hoc emergency measures. Clearly, such measures have failed in the past. One of the famous lines quoted from Sanskrit literature is the concept of “ Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, which means that the world is one family.

Loosely translated, the phrase means:

This is mine, that is his, say the small minded. The wise believe that the entire world is a family.

It is time for the powerful nations to note that we are all in it together; and unless the entire world is vaccinated, no one can feel safe. Emergency measures must give way to a sustained long-term war on the pandemic.

Or else, running out of Greek alphabets to name variants would be the least of our problems.

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