A year ago, most of the world was looking forward to the promised better days ahead of 2021, while bidding an unfond farewell to 2020, after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic completely transformed the way we live, work and socialise.
This year hasn’t quite turned out as we might have imagined back in January.
While more than 8.2 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide in 2021, according to the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 dashboard, I doubt many people were fully prepared for the twists and turns that have confronted us in the pandemic, especially as vaccine distribution and acceptance have varied across the world, creating further complications.
The recent emergence of the Omicron variant in the past month only underlines how complex and multi-layered the pandemic is and continues to be.
Perhaps, the biggest issues with the new variant are the uncertainty of what it will deliver and the conflicting viewpoints that have been presented about its probable severity and impact. To date, one case of the variant has been identified in the UAE.
On any given day, it is possible to conclude that the variant is the biggest incoming storm of all in a crisis of multiple powerful events or that it may yet be something that will pass by and leave the world relatively unscathed.
Last week, for instance, Moderna’s chief executive Stephane Bancel said that Omicron was very concerning because existing vaccines would be unable to demonstrate the same level of effectiveness as they had against Delta and previous variants. This week, Moderna said it had quickly produced a booster shot that is ready to tackle the variant.
Earlier this week, Dr Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to the US president, said that there did not appear to be a “great degree” of severity to the strain. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, meanwhile, said his country’s emergency services were preparing for more hospital admissions as concern about Omicron grew.
On Tuesday, the UK announced that Omicron infections are expected to rise steeply in Britain and that some estimates suggested there are more than 1,000 undetected variant cases within the community. Scientists elsewhere in the UK have also said that it will probably take weeks for us to truly understand the extent of harm the variant could cause.
On Wednesday, a small study found that the new variant reduces the ability of antibodies generated by the Pfizer vaccine to neutralise the variant. On the same day, it was found that three doses of Pfizer could effectively neutralise Omicron.
We live in an age of confusion even if the prescription for tackling the variant is, of course, familiar by now: vaccine and booster delivery, regular testing, social distancing, masks and regular, clear public messaging.
With so much conflicting information in the air – and predicting how things will end up is also often a fool’s game – is it any wonder that one of the features of the pandemic has been heightened and prolonged anxiety among vast tranches of the population. This is because, in part, the dissenting opinions can spur policy formulations at either end of the liberal-conservative scale. Some governments in Europe are stepping up lockdown measures to control the virus, only adding to the gloom.
An Associated Press report this week found that one third of Americans surveyed said that the pandemic was a major source of stress. About 30 per cent said they were worried about catching Covid-19 and around half of those polled said the coronavirus crisis had had an impact on their mental health. What those polling numbers tell you is that confidence is still brittle and that we are yet to come to terms with living with Covid-19.
And, I suspect, there is no American exceptionalism about these survey results, which were conducted by AP-Norc in September and polled teens and adults of all ages, because anxiety and worry about how this all ends weighs heavily on many people and can only have been heightened by the sense of uncertainty that Omicron brings to the world. The impact of long periods of worry about the future are leaving deep scars on many communities.
If the pandemic is to end next year and we are to reduce pandemic-induced stress, then four things must happen.
First, vaccine distribution and uptake must improve in those parts of the world where supply problems or hesitancy are evident.
Second, 2022 must be the year that the world truly learns to live with Covid-19.
If 2021 was the year when it became clear that “zero Covid” was an unrealistic aim, 2022 should be the time that lockdowns are set aside for good. Experts in the UK this week said that Omicron cases in the UK will not be significantly slowed down by instituting work-from-home protocols.
Third, access to vaccines and boosters will prevent Omicron from becoming an event as serious as the opening phase of the pandemic. So, global efforts to get vaccines to the unvaccinated must increase in intensity.
Finally, the "wait and see, too early to tell" reaction to Omicron must be our default when new variants emerge, which they inevitably will. Policymakers and populations in general must be guided by the data rather than the gut. Above all, we should be clear that increased vaccine distribution should lessen the impact of any future variant.