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Omicron’s Here. We Invited It In

With good policy this massive fifth wave could have been avoided. Instead our leaders embraced four big myths.

Andrew Nikiforuk 22 Dec

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

Three weeks ago Omicron, a variant more transmissible than TikTok, started another global conflagration. And thanks in part to the connectivity of global elites who insist upon uninterrupted long-range travel, the variant has now started roaring fires in more than 90 nations.

Once again authorities responded with sloth, resignation or deadly indifference. How déjà vu of them.

Instead of acting quickly, our political classes collapsed into self-pity or pulled out a morgue full of excuses.

Individuals elected to lead complained the pandemic is so unpredictable. (Sorry, the evolution of variants is highly predictable as The Tyee has repeatedly explained.)

Then they moaned that their fatigued citizens couldn’t follow any more restrictions to save lives from death or long COVID. So why lead and do anything? (Is viral defeatism Canada’s new political party?)

Others argued that we shouldn’t worry. Hey, it won’t be a severe fire this time.

Yet trained firefighters don’t debate the severity of fire before putting it out. Nor do they wait for the fire to burn all the bedrooms and their occupants before acting, let alone rating the fire as “severe.”

They simply respond to highly predictable risk to avoid greater harm.

But that’s not what our sociopathic political leaders have done with Omicron. Or Delta for that matter. They have wholeheartedly embraced fatalism as acceptable public health policy.

Yet COVID is teaching us once again that a highly transmissible variant is more deadly than a lethal one because it will infect more people in short order and thereby injure or kill more people. A highly transmissible virus is something to be feared and respected.

But public health authorities have been so tardy and reactive to the fifth wave. Pandemic expert and physicist Yaneer Bar-Yam, whose track record on COVID has been depressingly accurate, offered a blunt assessment this week on Twitter.

“Omicron is spreading very rapidly. The responses of many countries are insufficient. Please protect yourself and your families. In the next few weeks shelter in place, and be prepared for the shock that will occur as cases rise.”

“We don’t know the full extent of the shock and must prepare for difficult times,” he wrote. “There are risks of supply chain disruption. We cannot predict their extent due to the underlying complexity.”

In the next six to eight weeks expect a large proportion of the doubly vaccinated to get infected. Many will become deathly sick or develop long COVID.

The authorities will run out of materials for PCR tests and rapid tests. They will also run out of vaccines for booster shots. And health-care workers will get smashed again by exponential hospitalizations and deaths.

This fifth wave, the direct product of “learning to live with the virus,” has maddening implications for all of us.

Omicron, the most highly mutated variant to yet emerge, can evade both natural and vaccine immunity. As a consequence this wave could put the world back to square one in this pandemic.

Remember the confusion and fear of March 2020. That could be our bold new destination, a result of a series of very bad policy choices.

And don’t think for a moment that Omicron is the worst the pandemic can still throw at us.

In his informative Forbes articles, U.S. virus expert William Haseltine soberly notes that coronaviruses have been around for million of years and can infect various animals. The next variant might well come from an infected population of mink or deer.

Moreover COVID, the seventh coronavirus to plague humans, “is capable of far more changes and far more variation than most ever thought possible and it will keep coming back to haunt us again and again.”

Hasletine adds that a variant more transmissible and deadly than Omicron is entirely possible given the dismal global response to the pandemic so far.

Four myths we chose to embrace

We find ourselves in this bad place because of the easy currency of bad ideas in a technological society.

These dangerous ideas — and I’m only going to deal with four — are worth reviewing again because if we don’t challenge and abandon them, we will be fighting COVID for years.

Myth 1: Vaccines will get us out of this.

From the beginning of the pandemic politicians told citizens to wait for the vaccine because a single technology will save us.

Yet as The Tyee has consistently warned, vaccines are imperfect tools that have severe limits. Moreover no vaccine has ended any outbreak without the help of other public health tools including masks, quarantines and reductions in mobility. The assumption that a vaccine or drugs can end a novel evolving pathogen in real time without the strategic use of other interventions to bring transmission to zero has made society more fragile and not less so.

Omicron’s superspreading events in vaccinated populations have highlighted the danger of this thinking. Three doses of the Pfizer vaccine offers only 70-per-cent protection.

Yes, the vaccines may blessedly keep some of us out of the hospital and that’s good news. But if vaccines aren’t smartly paired with other interventions to end transmission, we will be spinning our wheels for years to come.

A vaccine-only policy will prolong the pandemic and exhaust our health-care systems. Only nuanced policies that focus on eliminating transmission with the strategic use of testing, improved ventilation and restraints on international travel will get the job done.

Myth 2: Pandemics are unpredictable and have nothing to do with policy or human behaviour.

Not true. Our global technosphere has provided a perfect environment for COVID to flourish. Two human behaviours in a technological society have fed and accelerated this pandemic. The first is unrestricted global travel, which guarantees the circulation of variants. The second is poor ventilation in our artificial living and working spaces.

International travel seeded the pandemic and has launched every variant since. Poor ventilation, in turn, has guaranteed the rapid transmission of new variants in schools, workplaces, restaurants and spin classes. Without enclosed spaces built by our technologies, this virus would perish. The evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein have correctly called COVID “a disease of buildings, cars, ships, trains and airplanes.”

Yet public policy has failed to address these two critical issues. The complexity expert Joe Norman correctly has imperfect tools that “Adaptively severing long-range connections — essentially all long-range connections — should be the first step in addressing any emerging disease that poses significant pandemic potential.”

And until Canada’s politicians become strong advocates for changes in clean air standards in public buildings and workplaces, the pandemic will linger like secondhand smoke.

Myth 3: We can live with this virus, and it will become milder over time.

Really? How’s that working for you? Economies flooded by fear don’t work very well when people are dying, the hospitals are full and routine medical care becomes difficult if not impossible.

In contrast the research shows that societies that collectively respond with policies that reduced transmission to zero or near zero experienced fuller civil rights and healthier economies.

Elimination matters for several key reasons. For starters there is no guarantee any new virus will evolve toward a milder state. It is a complete scientific myth.

Let me repeat Haseltine’s pointed warning that we have not seen the worse COVID can deliver yet.

At the same time the cost of “living with the virus” is growing exponentially. The variants keep adding to those political, economic and psychological costs by increasing transmission, severity and lethality of COVID-19.

More variants equals more mutations which equals more risk for all of us. And the variants are now clearly outracing the vaccines. How long do Canadians want to be prisoners to this charade because politicians believe “we can live with this virus”?

Myth 4: COVID is just a flu-like virus.

Just because a novel coronavirus may provoke flu-like symptoms doesn’t make it a flu. Or even a close relative. Unlike the flu, which is spread by children, COVID-19 is driven by random superspreader events originating in just 20 per cent of the population. The two viruses represent radically different diseases requiring totally different public health responses.

As many physicians have argued, it is best to think of this novel virus as an evolving thrombotic fever.

It attacks the vascular system and can destroy brain cells.

It inflames the heart and can destabilize immune systems.

It can even lower sperm counts and motility.

Even people with mild symptoms can suffer from chronic disabilities (fatigue and brain fog) a year after infection. To date we have no clear idea how an infection might undo a person’s health a decade from now.

Any politician who still dismisses or compares COVID to a flu should be forced to clean and bathe the dead.

Like many competent public health workers the developmental biologist Malgorzata Gasperowicz has long argued that “waves don’t come on their own. Bad policies make waves.”

And that’s Omicron in a viral nutshell. It’s the result of only focusing on vaccines and ignoring other vital interventions such as widespread testing and border controls to stop transmission.

It’s the consequence of ignoring the science on aerosol spread because Omicron now thrives in unventilated spaces.

It’s also the direct result of not addressing the problems posed by unrestricted global mobility.

And by dismissing elimination as a viable strategy to lead us out of this chaos, our political class has insured that Omicron won’t be the last variant to unsettle our lives.

Gasperowicz has another important point. The virus just doesn’t attack individuals but society as a whole. If we think of society as a meta-organism and each person as a cell in that organism, then we can think of public health and political leadership as our immune system.

“Societies with weak or compromised immune/defence systems end up with raging infection or sepsis. Societies with strong/functional immune systems clear up the infection. They don’t get infected or don’t let the infection to progress,” Gasperowicz told The Tyee.

From the beginning, COVID has asked Canadian society the rudest of questions: Is your political immune system working for you? Or for a triumphal global virus?  [Tyee]

Read more: Coronavirus

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