Learning to live with COVID-19 will not be easy
It is no secret that everyone is tired of COVID-19 and its constantly evolving and negative developments. The latest such development was what I read this week about a Cypriot scientist discovering a new variant he called the “deltacron,” which is apparently a combination of the mutations seen in delta and omicron, although experts have contested the finding and blamed it on laboratory samples becoming contaminated. Regardless of whether this new variant’s existence is either confirmed or denied, COVID-19 infections worldwide topped 300 million this week, according to an AFP count based on official figures, and the real number might be even higher.
Keeping this in mind, I am struggling to digest the words of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the UK has been making progress against omicron and that he is looking at reducing the isolation period for those infected from seven days to five. Clearly, this has been causing more disruption to the health sector and the economy than a full lockdown due to rising absenteeism across the country, with figures showing that one in every 20 to 25 Britons is infected. This is maybe based on conclusions reached by scientists that, a year ago, one in every 10 cases needed hospitalization, whereas this year it is one in every 50 thanks to the vaccines. But as this omicron variant, we are told, is more prevalent, isn’t it likely that it will infect more people and hence cause a higher level of hospital admissions?
It seems like this is not being factored in by Johnson, who said that “we have got to make sure that we see off omicron. We are making great progress,” even if 18,000 are currently in British hospitals with COVID-19. UK government officials have been boasting that, now that so many of us are vaccinated and boosted, we need to “learn to live with COVID.” Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi revealed over the weekend that the country “is witnessing the transition of the virus from pandemic to endemic.”
One is desperate to believe such statements by Johnson and the ministers who are working to contain the spread of the disease, while also keeping services and the economy ticking over, which — one has to admit — is no easy task. But many questions spring to mind for people in the UK and all over the world as they are gripped by this crisis.
Johnson and his ministers want us to learn to live with omicron, but what if it does not want to live with us and it mutates again into a more lethal variant?
The weekend’s national press was full of talk that, in the spirit of going forward, the useful lateral flow test — on which working parents, students and key workers have relied to prove they don’t have the virus before going to work or school — will soon be no longer distributed freely. Yes, the British government has denied that, but one can clearly hear noises that lateral flow and PCR tests are to be used only in critical situations. And, yes, maybe this is due to the fact that more than £6 billion ($8.14 billion) of public money has been spent on mass testing so far.
It is alarming to see such a rush to announce our victory over the virus and to start scaling back the availability of tests. The UK is already seeking private hospitals — after its use of the military — to help shore up the healthcare system’s ability to continue to deal with surges in infections. It is enough to look to the continent to see how omicron’s swift spread is causing stresses to health services throughout Europe, even though it has not yet peaked. Sweden has called for more measures to deal with the squeezes on its health sector, while in the US, Texas is grappling to find enough tests to deal with the “flood” of cases recorded there.
Increasingly, I get the impression that economic worries have been driving the agenda of some nations’ war against COVID-19. Inflation worries are up and battling the virus is down on the list of priorities of certain Western governments, which are willing to save the health of the economy at the expense of the health of their people. Meanwhile, developing countries are not faring any better, as vaccine delivery and administration is lagging way behind the richer nations. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, just one in every 1,000 people has had two shots of vaccine so far. This has led the International Monetary Fund to warn that omicron-related turbulence is yet to hit developing economies.
The order of the day globally seems to be don’t stay at home and do go to work, even if you are sick. Rich and poor states alike can no longer afford to be generous and shield employees for however many years the COVID-19 emergency lasts.
It is alarming to see such a rush to announce our victory over the virus and to start scaling back the availability of tests.
This atmosphere of uncertainty requires global leadership to ensure all countries work in unison and protect the safety of both people and the economy. A lot has been said and done in the past two years, but it has all fallen short of providing a common blueprint to isolate the threat of the virus and reduce the pandemic to epidemic level, which would allow the world to function and return to quasi-normality. Instead, COVID-19 has been added to the long list of permanent adverse factors affecting the world, alongside the climate change crisis, conflicts and wars, and economic worries that continue to shake the stability of state and society. Such risks should be seen as existential threats to us all.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.