Across the world, December 2021 ended on a note that many people would have wished was different. There was vast progress made last year: speedy vaccine development and distribution, global economic recovery, and a return in the second half of the year to a semi-normal life. Yet, the Omicron variant asserted itself in the past few weeks with high infection numbers, so much so that December could have forgivably been viewed by some as a repeat of 2020, when coronavirus and its toll changed our lives.
Seen at this turn and just as we have entered the new year, an optimistic message from the World Health Organisation provides context and perhaps even solace, especially to the millions of people who have lost loved ones to Covid-19.
Expressing confidence that the world can finally put the pandemic behind us in 2022, the message of WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus underlines the need for global co-operation and the imperative to reduce vaccine inequity, so that all nations, rich and poor, can together emerge from the woods.
Considering the increase in the number of infections globally in the past fortnight, due to the Omicron variant, Dr Tedros's message was a timely reminder of the goal that international stakeholders need to aim for this year. While acknowledging that 2021 has been tough, Dr Tedros said the world is in a much better position than it was a year ago. Strong, positive, fact-based messaging from the top, even when it comes with the familiar caveats, is the sort of well-regarded guidance that can lift wearied spirits.
We all want the pandemic to be over. There is no doubt or disagreement that all countries need to do their bit to reduce vaccine inequity. As Gavi's Dr Seth Berkley wrote in a piece for The National: "Today, the world’s wealthiest nations have protected more than 75 per cent of their citizens, while only in the poorest countries just 8.3 per cent of people have had their first shot."
While the severity of Covid-19 cannot be underestimated, there are glimmers of hope. The South African government, having done away with quarantine as a strategy, has said the Omicron variant is retreating. And data from a study in the UK says Omicron is less likely to cause severe disease, even though it is highly transmissible, so much so that a whiff of infected breath is adequate exposure.
In the UAE, the infection trend may have corresponded to high case numbers globally, but a determined vaccination programme over the past year – along with efficient collection and processing of Covid-19 data – has yielded good signs. The country has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with more than 21.8 million doses recorded since December 2020. The UAE has also sent medical aid and vaccines to countries in and outside the region, be it to Syria, Gaza, Tunisia, other countries in Africa, or further east, to Indonesia and the Philippines.
Vaccination continues to be the best means to safeguard most people, without underlying health problems, from life-threatening conditions. Our individual responsibility is to ensure that we remain careful and consistent with masks, distancing and hygiene so that our circles and our communities are safe. It is how we can be best prepared to see the wane of Omicron, be equipped for other variants that could emerge, and perhaps in following these best practices, we can cautiously join in the hope, along with Dr Tedros, to beat the pandemic in the next 12 months.