Oh, Oh, Omicron
Terry H. Schwadron
Nov. 29, 2021
Even as U.S. Omicron-related travel restrictions kick in anew today, the flood of criticisms has already been unloosed. The news about omicron is feeding our worst fears of never-ending contagion and exposing all our well-honed impatient tantrums.
Clearly, there are questions about whether travel bans are the best or even effective public health tools, since air routes are being shut after mutated covid cases have been found and identified. The U.S. acted relatively quickly, for example, though Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, was saying it would not be surprising to find that the mutation is already in this country, but saying we need a few weeks to determine how serious the mutation is.
From public health officials, early reports of the new, potentially more vaccine-resistant Omicron are reason to push for more mandated measures worldwide, including exporting vaccines. This comes even before vaccine makers have had a chance to review whether they need to adjust their jabs — though there were reports that its effects might turn out to be relatively mild. The enemy is the unknown.
Among Republican political leaders, however, the same reports are reason to warn against renewed lockdowns and forced vaccines, and cause to see wild plots behind global health outbreaks. Again, no one yet knows the needed details, but a shortage of evidence never stops good anti-Democratic messaging, as if that is what matters. Their enemy is an aggressive government policy about pandemic.
So, as well as being scary to health, covid once again reveals more about our state of reasoning.
South Africa is reacting angrily to the way many countries, including the United States, have imposed travel restrictions on travelers from southern Africa. South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla characterized the travel bans as “unjustified” as well as “knee-jerk and draconian,” adding that his country was being punished for being transparent about its findings and alerting the world to Omicron.
What to Do
For once, we see coordinated, timely action against Covid. Naturally, then, we can expect pushback from those who find fault with all government decision-making both over the action takens and the evident fear behind it.
The travel restrictions blocking air travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi were spreading, even as new cases of the Omicron mutation were reported in new locations, most traced to travel from Southern Africa. Over the weekend, The Netherlands reported 61 cases found on two planes alone.
As The Washington Post noted, experts warned the travel bans may be too late. One public health researcher told the news outlet that “By the time we have enough information to institute a travel ban, the cat’s already out of the bag, so to speak.” Travel bans could in theory buy some time by reducing the spread of new seed cases, but we are talking on the order of days to weeks,” she added.
South Africa’s Phaahla added that it seemed countries were more eager to “put blame” rather than figure out the best way to deal with this new concerning variant. “Witch hunts don’t benefit anyone,” he said, adding that covid is a global concern, that richer countries should be doing more to share vaccines and other medications, and that travel bans violate standards set by the World Health Organization.
In reaction to complaints that we should already have acted, there were a few aggressive moves — as usual, drawing aggressive protest.
Israel, for example, went way beyond, forbidding noncitizens for two weeks, to stem spread of the omicron coronavirus variant and to allow experts time to assess its level of transmissibility and resistance against existing vaccines. It also reinstated some aggressive contact tracing procedures that were drawing immediate political pushback.
New York Gov. Kathleen Hochul even issued pre-emptive emergency measures that could delay elective surgeries to make room for expected increases in hospitalizations from the new variant.
Relatively less attention is going to the argument about whether the globe’s richest nations are seen as hoarding the current vaccine and other medicines.
And the Politics
The contagion of misinformation and political advantage will outlive yet another new virus mutation, of course.
The New York Post introduced us to Republicans who want to remind us that that Biden is either too early or too late, too aggressive, or not, not appreciative that his predecessor Donald Trump also moved to stop air traffic from China (but not Europe), even if that decision was late and ineffective.
“No worries, travel ban begins next week because you know, variants don’t spread on holiday weekends,” Rep. Thomas Massie. R-Ky. “Who really believes this variant isn’t already here?” A local Republican New York City Councilman added that the travel ban was just stirring fear and ineffective.
The mutation was discovered last week; when exactly should Biden have ordered a travel ban?
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark, condemned the Biden administration’s too-little, too-late travel measure as “worse than useless.” It’s not clear what he would do instead.
On the Sean Hannity show, former White House senior adviser Stephen Miller claimed that if Trump were still president, “we would already have modified vaccines” to deal with the new omicron variant, skipping over the fact that the same companies are now looking at the mutation.
Fox & Friends hosts suggested that South Africa, the World Health Organization, the Democratic Party, and the Biden administration are all part of a massive conspiracy to keep Democrats in power by routinely introducing new variants of the coronavirus that somehow also is to promote Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg as replacing Biden.
“Always a new variant,” said one of the hosts, adding “you can count on a variant about every October, every two years” — suggesting that Democrats would invent new variants before elections to gain an advantage.
Unfortunately, we have multiple, simultaneous contagions — and none of them shows a willingness to go away.