The Omicron Variant and the Prolonged Pandemic
International inequality caused by hoarding among richer countries will deepen the crisis and physical and psychological distress, especially if the Coronavirus continues to mutate successfully.
The hope that Christmas 2021 would provide a pre-Pandemic holiday comparable to 2019 is being cruelly undermined. A sense of foreboding stalks many European and other countries as the Omicron variant takes hold. The emergence and exceptional transmissibility of the new Covid-19 variant, Omicron, is adding further severe stresses to public health systems and hospitals in the United States, South America, Europe, the Indian sub-continent and parts of the Middle East. Fears are mounting that there will be a demoralising new wave of Covid-19 infections.
Even though the previous dominant Delta pathogen continues to infect many thousands of people across the globe (with China and South Korea being notable and impressive exceptions), the scientific development and implementation of vaccines in 2021 have substantially slowed the fatality rate and the scale of hospitalisations in many countries.
Many developed economies and societies, greatly supported by government fiscal expansion and Covid-19 support programmes, have been able to return to some pre-Pandemic normality.
In tightening its borders, China has taken vital steps to maintain its very low coronavirus infection rate and effectiveness of its mass vaccination programme. For example, cases have been on the rise in Vietnam, historically successful in suppressing the Coronavirus pandemic with escalating infections and deaths.
The Omicron threats
The optimism engendered by vaccination regimes comprising two injections (administered months apart), with a booster jab designed to counteract the declining efficacy of the vaccine, has been undermined by the highly transmissible and immunity evading Omicron variant (with as yet uncertain morbidity and mortality).
Omicron is more than three times as infectious as the Delta variant, paving the way for a huge surge in Covid cases. The spread of this variant will seriously destabilise economies, societies, political and public health systems in 2022. The pandemic will continue until scientists and public health systems have developed vaccines that will neutralise the Omicron variant and other mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 (genetically related but different to the SARS viral outbreak in 2003). However, such vaccines will not contain the virus and its mutants unless all countries and populations are fully vaccinated.
International inequality caused by vaccine hoarding among richer countries, together with production and supply chain disruptions in the availability of syringes and phials accompanied by insufficient planning, creating bottlenecks in the rollout, will deepen the crisis and physical and psychological distress, especially if the Coronavirus continues to mutate successfully.
The lessons from the notorious great pandemic influenza (inappropriately named “Spanish Flu”) of 1918 to at least 1920 remain relevant to the present pandemic. More than 50 million people died during the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic, the most lethal pandemic since the 14th Century Black Death plague. Arriving in three (and perhaps four) waves, lethal new strains from the original H1N1 virus evolved to generate flu pandemics in 1957 (H2N2), 1968 (H3N2), each killing a million people with the 2009 swine flu pandemic killing half a million.
In the case of the United Kingdom, the 2021 vaccination programme had kept the viral reproduction rate (R) close to 1 during the Autumn months with daily cases relatively flat at around 40,000 per week. Recent estimation however has placed the R-value for Omicron at a disturbing 3.47.
Dysfunctional international cooperation and the myopia of the developed nations
The huge disparity between the percentage of the population vaccinated in the industrial countries and the developing nations perpetuates not only vaccine inequality but adds to the folly of sustaining the virus by leaving large segments of populations vulnerable to existing and new variants (many countries in Africa have fewer than 10 percent of the population vaccinated. The expected 1 billion vaccines arriving in the next few months will need to overcome the global shortage of vaccine delivery equipment and logistical problems with supply chains).
As noted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), G20 nations have spent some $10 trillion in emergency financial support since the onset of the pandemic in February 2020. By comparison, it would cost $50 Billion to vaccinate the whole world.
Assuming that the Omicron variant is both more transmissible and resistant to vaccines, the OECD forecasts further economic disruption and instability reflected in additional strains on supply chains and accelerating inflation.
Contraction in demand across many sectors will once more necessitate fiscal support and stimulus. The slowdown in global GDP growth in G20 countries will spill over into weaker economic recovery and more poverty in under-vaccinated, poorer countries intensifying global economic inequality.
Behavioural science, nudging and the perils of enforcement
The consequences of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in Europe and the United States are being reflected in large protests objecting to the tightening of measures (increasingly mandatory wearing of masks in commercial and workplaces, hospitality venues public transport and the return to working from home where possible). Such measures are designed to avoid the disastrous spread of infections into hospitals, care homes and to mitigate the further growing pressure on all branches of public health care and treatment encompassing hospital admissions and elderly care homes.
The trade-off between public health measures and economic sustainability will become much clearer by the end of 2021 when the virulence, serious illnesses and deaths from Omicron will become apparent in the time lag after infection to hospitalisations and deaths. The battle for supremacy between the Delta and Omicron variants may produce further highly contagious mutations.
In November, Austria became the first western European country to reimpose a lockdown for vaccinated people. This has now ended but restrictions will be maintained for the unvaccinated. The government says nobody will be vaccinated by force but those who refuse the jab will receive fines of up to €3,600 ($4,000). Devising more effective and successful communication strategies (the United Nations has experimented with utilising Tik-Tok specialists to reduce vaccine hesitancy) will play a vital role in persuading younger generations to be vaccinated.
If the lethality of Omicron proves to be less dangerous than previous variants, the implementation of new restrictions will provoke further protests against authorities, and the measures they have introduced.
The pandemic has for so long generated fear and uncertainty that public compliance with additional economically and socially restrictive measures will increasingly diminish. If such measures are accompanied by a substantial loss of trust in the decision-making of the authorities (as currently evidenced in the United Kingdom), a fatalistic resignation among the public will further maintain the grip of the Omicron and further mutations of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The article reflects the author’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of China Focus.