According to Greek mythology, Omicron was a Greek God who was unhappy when people lived in peace, working harmoniously together to maximize their collective well-being and happiness. Omi, as the other Gods called him, loved nothing more than finding ways to divide people against each other, resurrecting age-old grievances and wounds in the hopes of triggering people to pick up their weapons and resume their ancestors’ quarrels against each other. Until one day…
OK, I am kidding. Omicron, as more erudite readers will already know and as I have been told, is the fifteenth Greek letter, and the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) has been using Greek letters to name Covid-19 variants as they are discovered. But I do think my Omi would be a good candidate for the mythological pantheon – a timeless cautionary tale that suits the moment.
Omicron certainly feels like a call to arms, for people to jump back into their respective trenches and resume their cultural and political fights. Scientists and public health authorities may be stressing that we still have a lot to learn about the new variant discovered in Africa, but the rest of us and our political representatives seem to know all that we need to know about it – which is that it proves we have been right all along, and that you’re wrong. And the next variant will prove that too. And the next…
Among the science-skeptical right, the new variant, and the rush to embrace countermeasures before we know how contagious, virulent, and vulnerable Omicron really is, amounts to more evidence that the authoritarian nanny state and its public health officials are eager to seize upon any excuse to govern how we live, or rather how we aren’t allowed to live to the fullest. They have also been quick to mock the W.H.O. for excessive political correctness, or bias, in skipping the Greek letter “Xi” in naming the variant.
This worldview tends towards lunacy, and it will be deemed our democracies’ historical failure that we emboldened it to the extent we did by not mandating vaccines as soon as they were available. We feared that would backfire and stiffen opposition, but the opposite happened. Our whole this-amazing-scientific-breakthrough-we-mobilized-to-achieve-is-crucial-for-all-of-us-to-overcome-this-existential-threat-but-hey-you-know-best approach to vaccines provided ample oxygen for the spread of doubt, hesitancy, and malicious disinformation – not to mention further variants of the virus.
That said, delusional pandemic minimizers and deniers are scoring some points this week in pointing out how quickly the mainstream media and political authorities are stoking fears about the new variant and contemplating or embracing overreactions in the face of incomplete information. Many people in the liberal, technocratic class seem to be welcoming Omicron as a moral judgment on “those people” (see my above paragraph), and as an argument for vindication, and for finally taking this pandemic seriously.
While we are playing the Omicron-proves-my-agenda game, I want a turn at bat.
Ready? Omi illustrates three noteworthy points.
First, it is another reminder that nuance was among the pandemic’s first victims. Public discourse – how society at large assimilates, considers, and internalizes news and information – is incapable of handling a head’s up that we may or may not be facing a significantly different chapter in our Covid-19 saga. Stay tuned (without freaking out or rushing to deny or dismiss) is something we no longer know how to do.
This points to a second Omicron revelation: the growing gap between our democracy’s discourse and the scientific inquiry, which demands curiosity and a mind open to all possibilities. Science keeps crushing its response to the pandemic while we keep fumbling our political and cultural responses. Indeed, one of the reasons for all the uncertainty surrounding Omicron is the staggering quickness with which South African scientists were able to identify, sequence, and share data about the new variant. We are witnessing science in real time.
And this leads us to Omicron’s third reminder, or remedial lesson for those who have not heeded this reality: a response to a global pandemic in an interconnected world needs to be global. South Africa’s vigilance, agility, and transparency in this case has been exemplary and exactly what is needed if the world is to get ahead of the disease.
Travel bans and the closing of borders, on the other hand, are national responses that signal we are not all in this together, and often serve more of a political purpose than a scientific one. This is a tribal reflex that harkens back to the closing of a town’s gates in medieval, plague-ridden times. But in the 21st Century, closing the US-Mexico border for nearly 20 months, as we did until earlier this month, was a senseless, harmful act. And now many scientists and health advocates are warning that the rush to quarantine South Africa from the rest of the world, essentially penalizing it for its transparency, could backfire if other countries learn the wrong lesson and decide to be less transparent. The virus mutations, meanwhile, will spread regardless.
That’s especially true if large swaths of the world remain unvaccinated, and this is where the failure to embrace a global approach to combatting the pandemic is most disappointing. Three-quarters of South Africans remain unvaccinated, and that failure is on all of us and needs remedying. Equally shameful is the fact that roughly 40 percent of Americans are not fully vaccinated, despite having ample access to the shot.
Omicron will not be the last Covid-19 variant, and the W.H.O. may run out of Greek letters to name its successors if we don’t start heeding Omi’s lessons.