When will it be safe to take off our masks?
A health expert with a smattering of classical education recently quipped: “It’s a long way from omicron to omega.” She was talking about the likelihood that the omicron variant of the coronavirus would be its last serious manifestation.
The World Health Organization began naming variants after letters in the Greek alphabet in May last year. Omicron is the 15th letter in an order that ends with omega in 24th place. So, on the face of it, we are well into the second half of the pandemic, with the end in sight. But there are still a lot of letters to go in that sequence, which, of course, might not even end with omega.
That has not stopped governments all over the world from effectively calling the end of the pandemic, or at least its transition into the endemic phase.
The UK this week became the latest to declare victory over the virus with a splashy announcement from Prime Minister Boris Johnson that self-isolation in cases of infection would end on Thursday and free testing would stop at the end of next month. With regard to masks, it was a matter of “personal responsibility” to wear them or not.
Beleaguered Boris has his own domestic political reasons for wanting to spread a feelgood factor around the UK electorate, but the ending of restrictions is also part of a global trend.
Virtually every country has recently relaxed rules on the wearing of masks, social distancing and other measures brought in to counter the virus. Travel restrictions, in particular on air travel, have been steadily removed, although international passenger numbers are still way down on 2019 levels.
At least a couple of times a week over the past two years, I have clicked on to the coronavirus page of The Financial Times website, which is about the best source of statistical data on global cases, fatalities and vaccination rates. An impressive recent addition to this coverage was an active timeline map illustrating “government response stringency” since the pandemic began. From light blue to dark purple, the map shows how locked-down the world was in the various phases of the pandemic.
Pulsing dark red to purple during the savage infections of last year, the map is now mainly yellow to pink, showing that governments are progressively opening up again. The big question is: Are they justified in their belief that the worst is over and that omicron spells the end of the pandemic?
The scientific evidence is not conclusive. Despite some evidence that omicron results in lower fatality rates than previous variants, the latest assessment from the WHO is that the virus continues to present a high risk to our health systems and that “the end of the pandemic is still not yet in sight.” So, rather than being based on hard scientific evidence, the wave of reopenings seems to have been prompted by a growing global consensus that we just have to get on with our lives.
After 428 million confirmed COVID-19 cases globally, and a conservative estimate of 5.9 million deaths, as well as an economic toll last month estimated by the International Monetary at $12.5 trillion, the world appears to be collectively calling an end to the panic.
The wave of reopenings seems to have been prompted by a growing global consensus that we just have to get on with our lives.
Anthony Fauci, the American public health official, recently said that, in the US, which has suffered the most fatalities in absolute terms with 937,000, “people are just up to here with COVID — they just really need to somehow get their lives back.”
All the experts agree that the key is vaccination, both in terms of controlling infections and suppressing symptoms. Some 10.6 billion doses of the vaccine have been administered globally so far, implying that we are still some way off the minimum vaccination target of at least two shots per person. There are, of course, wide regional variations within that.
The Gulf region has done particularly well in this respect. The UAE has the highest proportion of fully vaccinated people (at least two doses) in the world at 95.5 percent. Saudi Arabia, with its much larger population, has hit 70 percent, roughly the same as the EU.
It is no coincidence that regional economies are also rebounding from the pandemic recession faster than the global average.
The lesson seems to be: Vaccinate and — cautiously — get back to normal. But watch out for the letters toward the end of the Greek alphabet.
- Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai