Omicron scare: A common-sense guide on how to cope

The threat from the latest variant of coronavirus cannot be taken too lightly

Published : 27 Dec 2021 10:00 PM

The bad news first. There is a worldwide surge in Omicron Coronavirus cases. According to Worldometer, there were 267,269 new cases and 1,297 deaths in the United States, 119,517 new cases and 147 deaths in the United Kingdom, and 6,681 new cases and 374 deaths in India on December 23rd. The good news, and I really hope there will be more in the offing, is that even if more infectious than Delta, Omicron seems considerably less life-threatening or fatal.

But its rapid spread in the last couple of weeks has thrown the world out of joint. In what is one of the busiest travel weekends of the year, over 6000 flights were cancelled across the world on Christmas Day and many more delayed. Passengers found themselves stranded at airports, some unable to meet their family members or return home. A severe shortage of workers and staff at the airports also added to the chaos and inconvenience.

In China alone, major airlines scrapped up to 20% of their flights, while in the US, to add to travellers’ woes, bad weather also resulted in traffic snarls and blockages on the West Coast. Luckily, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) confirmed that neither Santa Claus nor his reindeers got COVID-19 and were thus able to make their Christmas-eve night deliveries on time.

Third-wave infections?

In India, the caseload is still modest, averaging about 7000 a day. But on Dec. 24 Health Ministry officials found that 87 of 183 Omicron infected had been fully vaccinated. This raised alarm bells, with several dire warnings and some catastrophic predictions of third-wave infections sweeping across the country and overwhelming the health care system as well as the economy.

India’s vaccination drive, though impressive, cannot afford to rest on its laurels. Of those over 18, close to 90% have already been vaccinated with one dose and over 60% with two doses.

The remaining 40% need one more shot to be properly protected. Worse, those not yet inoculated may easily turn into Omicron spreaders, some without even knowing it as they are asymptomatic.

What this means is that the country is still very much at risk. Especially given the COVID-19-inappropriate behaviour during Christmas and year-end revelries, reported from many parts of the country, including not wearing masks or maintaining social distance. Add to this the near-capacity occupancy in hotels, resorts, restaurants, shopping areas, and malls. Goa alone has seen an influx of over a million tourists in December alone.

Nearly 35 million Indians have already been infected and half a million killed by the virus. The threat from Omicron, therefore, cannot be taken lightly. In a previous column, I myself had warned that it was too early to celebrate the end of the pandemic. 

Now, there are ongoing discussions in every home about what to make of Omicron, how dangerous it is, and if booster shots, as in other countries, should be permitted in India.

Given this scenario, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a timely announcement on Christmas Day that vaccinations of 15-18 year olds will start on Jan. 3, 2022. In addition, “precautionary doses” for health, front line workers, and seniors with comorbidities, will also be allowed from the first Monday of the new year. The more commonly used phrase “booster shot” was not used. It is possible that third doses, for those with waning antibodies after over six months of their first shots, will be announced later.

Though India is one of the largest manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines in the world, these new announcements by the government, much more leaning towards the precautionary than the aggressive, make eminent sense. 

It is far more important for the un- or partially vaccinated to be fully inoculated than for some sections of the populace to start taking their third shots.

One reason for the slow, rather than speedy plunge into more vaccination is that we do not know enough about the Omicron variant yet. What is more, we are also not fully informed about the side or ill-effects of the vaccines either, most of them being approved only for emergency use.

With elections looming ahead in several states, including India’s most populous and politically significant Uttar Pradesh, fresh restrictions, limits on weddings and mass gatherings, and stricter enforcements of COVID-19 protocols are likely.

Election season and COVID-19

If infections rise in January 2022, the Election Commission may even postpone the polling, in addition to imposing curbs on campaigning and crowds. Commenting on the prevailing COVID-19 conditions in the country, Union Home Minister Amit Shah observed, “Only caution, alertness and vaccine can keep us away from the coronavirus and get victory over it.” Sane advice indeed.

Now to the really important, even good, news. Most experts believe that the virus, even as it spreads wider, will also weaken in its lethal potency. 

That is because the virus itself wishes to survive and multiply, not kill off its host population. This means that, given time, it may become no worse than the hundreds of common viruses including coughs, colds, even influenza variants, which make us sick without killing us.

All this leads to some eminently sensible conclusions. The way to keep safe is, first of all, to seek the best possible help from science and the most accurate information throughout the pandemic. Secondly, to observe all COVID-19 precautions, including washing hands, masking and maintaining social distance.

Finally, and this is particularly important, to maintain, build, and boost one’s own immunity by a balanced and healthy lifestyle, fresh and nutritious food, adequate rest, and above all, reduction of stress through happy and wholesome relationships, anxiety management, and the daily practice of prayer, meditation, gratitude, compassion, kindness, and wisdom.

With these simple steps we can ensure that 2022 will be better for all of us.

Happy New Year!

Makarand R. Paranjape is a Professor of English at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views are personal. 

Source: Gulf News