Omicron: Learning to live with uncertainty

Published : 08 Dec 2021 08:24 PM | Updated : 09 Dec 2021 05:04 PM

Is this what they say about living in the moment? Only the moment we find ourselves in is what many experts have already been cautioning about as the new normal — the inevitability of living with Covid that becomes endemic or at least stays among us for a long indefinite while. The warnings aren’t too off target, even if the latest response to it has been.

The panic globally after Omicron was red flagged makes you realise that even after two years of living in the midst, of it, we are missing the wood for the trees. Some countries shut their borders overnight as though this was just a game of Roblox while others suddenly realised the merit in boosters behaving like Omicron was some Greek genie that had escaped from a bottle.

In India it was a sight that made eyes, sore. Travellers crammed, the immigration lines of the international airport in Delhi cheek by jowl even though it was our hearts that were sinking and not the world. People have complained of a wait for 6-8 hours in that crowded atmosphere for their Covid test results and many have likened the images to an overcrowded train station, (although it looks more like a train wreck) fearing that the airport itself could emerge as the latest hotspot.

But in all this hysteria, the learning that has been unfolding is two-pronged. Firstly, it cannot be clearer that we are now firmly ensconced in the age of uncertainty- knee jerk reactions won’t diminish the course that has to be played till the end nor will it make situations clearer ahead of time.

Large pen of headless chickens

By most accounts it could be at least another couple of weeks before we get directions on how to even process Omicron but since we haven’t adjusted our thought, the world is one large pen of headless chickens clucking one version and seconds later, another.

In an environment where the goalposts are constantly changing, only the most disconnected will dismiss Omicron as the final variant. So, secondly in this age of uncertainty our behaviour in riding through the disruptions while confronting and implementing the available knowledge without past bias will define how we eventually stack up.

What we saw in the last few days needs a re-look if we want to optimise our resources and manpower correctly in the future. Our reactions were in a sense pre-mediated, a quick response triggered to nullify the procrastination of the second wave, it was immaterial whether these actions were warranted or not.

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Covid outbreaks are in the present being measured by the barometer of our response to Delta even though experts say they are still wading through both anecdotal and scientific data.

Our past has caught up with us but that will not necessarily show us the path to a Covid fuelled future. Spanish Flu, Ebola- they all had their lessons but ultimately those in the moment have, to walk the present just like our earlier generations did with say, polio or small- pox.

Even in the 21st century, ‘the future’s not ours to see,’ even though it depends in no small measure to how we prod it with our thinking. Many global experts in the last few days admit to being caught unawares by Omicron, saying they had believed Delta was the beginning of the end. Now they say their reasoning (versus predictions) is nudging them to believe it really could be here to stay.

It is also often seen these days that belief becomes conditional- we give credence to an opinion piece because it has words by a writer we admire, or we listen to an expert on vaccination because we want our own view re-enforced. Confirmation bias has played out even in our response to Omicron because we expect things to unfold only dramatically now.

What Omicron though has done is to push for things that were stagnating- whether booster shots or vaccination for kids, there is a sudden urgency globally for issues that were floating in the last couple of months.

Forever playing catch-up

Irrespective of the timing, in India the inaccessibility to booster shots despite their availability is simply baffling as is the ease of keeping schools closed while our kids remain unvaccinated. The future though will remain disruptive if we are forever playing catch-up and hubris does not take long to set in.

In the words of John Kenneth Galbraith, “The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.” But with so many variables at play it is this realignment that is also critical to allow the pandemic to merge with our lives because in the frailty of humanity is the reality that a time will come when we will, have to stop treating the virus as an outsider.

Through the last two years we have conditioned ourselves to react post haste but while we wishfully wait for the virus to self-destruct- in a present moment of time and not in some unforeseeable future- our behaviour will define the difference between acceptance and stigma, fear and action, nationalism and necessity. What Albert Einstein once said almost sounds like a warning, “I never think of the future, it comes soon enough.”

And mine is approaching soon. After two long years the family is booked to travel back to India later this week, there is a desperation to go home and be among the familiar. The tickets were done months in advance when things were relatively calm in Covid-sphere even if masks were inching south by the day.

And that is where our thought process needs to be tweaked because many of us have chosen the easier path of taking chances in the lull before the next storm (unless you are one of those who thought the storm had passed.) Only like countless global travellers we find ourselves conflicted as Omicron gives a reminder, it doesn’t take long for the status quo to change.

As people and societies, we are in transition and how we crash out of the bubble needs restructuring and planning. Until then, people like me will continue to wonder if they should take that last flight home.

Jyotsna Mohan is the author of the investigative book 'Stoned, Shamed, Depressed'. She was also a journalist with NDTV for 15 years. Source: Gulf News