Saturday, November 27, 2021


STOP me if you've heard this before.

Every few months, there's a news report about some "scary new variant" of SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This variant, discovered in a "far off, distant land" (and they're always in "far off distant lands") is seen by someone the press describes as an "expert".

This expert "gets really, really scared" when he (and they're almost always a "he" if you haven't noticed) sees that this variant has "a large number of mutations" including "some we've never seen before" with "many appearing on the spike protein targeted by the vaccines".

Because of all this, this expert "sounds the alarm" because he's worried this "super scary variant" will "evade the vaccines" and render all the work we've done trying to contain SARS-CoV2 useless, meaning we'll have to "start from scratch" all over again.

Predictably, the media runs with this fear mongering for about a week, and the wider public gets scared because of how traumatic the COVID-19 experience has been.

So we lose our minds and again run around like Chicken Little and declare that "the sky is falling"...only for a week later to realize that this "scary new variant" really isn't as harmful as we thought it would be and/or has fizzled out into irrelevance.

Rinse, repeat.

So when the news came out about the variant we're now calling "omicron" (we're apparently skipping a letter in the Greek alphabet, as "nu" should be next) I was a little cynical about the sensationalism that arose because of it.

Don't get me wrong- I'm not dismissing the seriousness of the emergence of the omicron variant. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and the fact that people smarter than me in their fields are concerned about it means I need to take their words seriously.

I'm not downplaying any of that.

However, excuse me if I'm starting to feel like our health officials are starting to sound like they're crying "Wolf" a little too much, and I'm concerned they're not fully appreciating the impact of what they're doing.

No feature defines the pandemic more than "panic". It's also the pandemic response's most critical error, because all it leads to are ill-thought half-measures that do little more than say "we're doing something" as opposed to being actually productive.

The response to omicron is more of the same. Within hours of South African scientists sounding the alarm about the variant- and before the World Health Organization itself panicked and assigned it as a "variant of concern"- many countries had moved to close its borders to several southern African states.

This despite the fact that, at this stage, little is known about how troubling omicron actually is. There's a lot of speculation that it could be trouble but it's important to remember that it's just that- speculation.

Yes, I get that you want to be "safe not sorry", but this leads to the other side of the equation. Considering we didn't discover omicron right when "patient zero" got it, there's the potential that it's likely spread well beyond the cluster of patients we know of right now.

If, as it bears out, that omicron is more transmissible than delta, the likelihood that omicron has spread beyond southern Africa and is likely already worldwide is a certainty.

Which means the border closures won't work and they're a waste of time. South African and WHO officials have already pointed this out, but this hasn't yet stopped the rash of countries closing their borders.

What's worse about this reaction is that you'd expect countries to know better. Border closures didn't stop the original Wuhan strain from circulating in early 2020. Border closures didn't stop the alpha variant from going worldwide past Britain. Border closures didn't stop gamma from leaving Brazil. Border closures didn't stop beta from leaving South Africa.

Oh, and border closures didn't stop delta- currently the king of the SARS-CoV2 variants- from leaving India.

So how health leaders figured that border closures would work this time is beyond me.

Worse, I can't see how our health leaders can come out this unscathed.

If omicron winds up fading away soon with a whimper, barely spreading outside of its initial clusters, then our health leaders will again look like they've made a mountain of a molehill.

If omicron winds up tearing through the world and rendering the border closures useless, then our health leaders will be criticized for enacting poor policy and not doing enough to curb the pandemic.

This, in addition to the countless other measures that our health leaders have attempted and have wound up failing miserably. I'd list them all but I'd be here all day.

The point is, all this failure has to catch up to them. I'm sure they'll argue that "it's science, it evolves" and they'll sternly remind us "the virus doesn't care what you think" but that will matter little to a public that has been growing extremely frustrated with the inadequacy of our officials.

Think of it like a sports team and its fans. If a team goes through a prolonged slump, the fans won't care about the excuses the team provides for the slump, no matter how reasonable they are. The fans just want to see the team win again, and they'll voice their anger with the team until they correct it.

If they don't, they'll just jump to another team that they feel will reward their support better.

The same thing can befall public healthcare. The longer the pandemic drags on without any clear solutions, the more the public will look elsewhere for answers.

Which could mean more people shunning health sciences in favour of quack pseudoscience. Which will lead to hesitancy about not just the SARS-CoV2 vaccines but every vaccine that's ever been made.

Which could also lead to the death of public health care in general because the public will find them woefully inadequate, and they'll be tired of health officials playing dictator.

If that sounds implausible, well, as the owner of a history degree, the one maxim I know that is consistent throughout history is that the public won't stand for tyranny. Especially ineffective ones.

Which our health officials are dangerously close to appearing like with their arbitrary restriction decisions that have proven woefully inadequate time and again.

We don't have to accept that fate. We can finally be proactive and pivot to longer term solutions regarding the pandemic, as I have said time and again that we need to do. Omicron, no matter how it turns out, proves that SARS-CoV2 is here to stay and we need to plan for that, just like we did when the flu firmly established itself.

The bottom line is that we need solutions, not more useless panic and reactions.

-Daniel Arnold

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