Cover story: COVID-19

Omicron: Another global wave of COVID-19

Print edition : February 11, 2022

A nucleic acid test for COVID-19 at a private testing site in Beijing on January 17. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A health worker processes COVID-19 swab test results at a testing center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on January 18. Doctors in the country have told the media that medical services are on the verge of collapse owing to the increasing numbers and also because of medical staff catching the virus. Photo: Wagner Meier/Getty Images

The Omicron variant has swept across the world, affecting even countries with “zero COVID” policy such as China as well as the countries that had relaxed restrictions.

Very few nations in the world have escaped the deadly impact of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus since the first cases were reported in South Africa in end 2021. Even China, which has a zero-tolerance policy towards the pandemic, has been affected by this fast-spreading variant. China, which is preparing to host the prestigious Winter Olympics in early February, has now prohibited its citizens from travelling to Beijing in a last-ditch effort to prevent the virus from playing spoilsport.

Despite its high vaccination rates and efficient contact tracing, China has not been able to stop the Omicron variant from spreading. All the same, the infection rate is still very low in comparison with other countries in the region and the world. A few cases have been detected in Beijing, which will be hosting most of the events of the Winter Olympics. There was a recent flare-up of the Omicron variant in Tianjin, a port city just 120 kilometres from Beijing. Since the beginning of the year, the government had confined more than 20 million people in at least five cities, including Xian, Anyang and Yuzhou in Henan province. The Chinese government has however stated that it has no plans to lock down Beijing.

President Xi Jinping has promised a “green, safe and simple” Winter Olympics. China’s “zero COVID” policy seemed to be working until the Omicron variant surfaced. The lockdowns of big cities since the beginning of the year have adversely impacted the economy during the last quarter but the Chinese government is not giving up on its tough policies on dealing with the pandemic as yet. At the same time, Chinese officials have admitted that at this particular juncture, they will not be able to guarantee “zero local cases”.

The Chinese government has advised citizens not to travel during the Lunar New Year Festival, the most important holiday season during which millions of people return to their hometowns and villages to celebrate with their families. China, which has a population of 1.4 billion, has reported only 5,000 deaths so far. Two other countries, Taiwan and New Zealand, which had also implemented “zero COVID” policies, have also registered very low mortality rates.

Also read: Do multiple COVID boosters 'exhaust' our immune response?

Most other governments, especially those in Europe, have changed tack and prioritised the well-being of their economies. Some medical experts have even predicted that the pandemic has reached an “endemic” stage after the appearance of the less severe Omicron strain. Many European countries have relaxed most of the restrictions imposed during the surge of the Delta variant.

Europe opening up

Along with the United States, Europe witnessed record numbers of Omicron cases in the third week of January. The politically beleaguered Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, ordered the lifting of almost all the remaining COVID restrictions, including the wearing of face masks on public transportation and in school rooms. He claimed that he was doing so to restore the U.K’s “ancient liberties”, in which is a reference to the country’s long tradition of safeguarding individual freedoms.

The U.K. government had reimposed strict restrictions in December 2021 in the wake of the Omicron spread. A significant number of Conservative Party members of parliament had opposed the move. It was only with the help of the opposition Labour Party that the government could get the COVID-related legislation passed. Many of the Conservative backbenchers in Parliament have been demanding Johnson’s resignation over his repeated flouting of COVID restriction rules in December 2020, when the entire country was under almost complete lockdown. Many Conservative MPs, even those demanding his resignation, applauded loudly when Johnson announced that the wearing of masks in private schools would be ended with immediate effect.

The Netherlands, another country where COVID restrictions had evoked violent street protests, was among the first European country to open its restaurants and theatres to the public. In contrast, French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a tougher stance. In a speech delivered in the first week of January, he said that he would “piss off” unvaccinated people by denying them entry into restaurants, cultural events and public transport. Macron said that he would make the lives of the unvaccinated unbearable. They were, he said, unworthy of being treated as French citizens.

Also read: How dangerous is the omicron variant?

With the Presidential elections round the corner, taking a tough stance on the issue will help Macron in his fight against his right-wing rivals who have been critical of the government’s pandemic related policies. The lower house of the French parliament has already passed legislation mandating that only those who have been vaccinated will be allowed access to cafes, bars and museums. The government will issue a “vaccine pass”. France has registered record numbers of infections after the latest pandemic surge. Opinion polls show that two-thirds of the French public support Macron’s tough stance on the COVID sceptics.

Germany, too, has announced steps to keep unvaccinated people out of public life. The new rules, introduced just as the Omicron variant entered Europe in early December, prohibits the unvaccinated from entering bars and restaurants. The new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has said that his government too will introduce a law making vaccinations mandatory. Neighbouring Austria has already passed a law making it compulsory for all citizens to be vaccinated by February 2022. About 69 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated in Germany; Spain, Denmark and Ireland have a higher percentage of vaccinated citizens.

U.S in a mess

The United States continues to be among the countries that have been worst affected by the pandemic. By the third week of January, the official death toll had risen to more than 8,80,000. As many as 45,000 Americans had died in the month of December alone. The actual death toll, according to many experts, could exceed more than a million. Over 20 million people have died worldwide so far after being infected by the virus. Since the new variant of the virus hit the U.S., hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has projected that the death toll will rise to more than 3,000 a day by late January and early February.

The Biden administration is being blamed for the mess the U.S. health sector finds itself in. It had lifted many restrictions. In December, the government shortened the period of isolation for COVID patients to five days. Health care employees and other were forced to resume work within that specified period after falling sick. COVID-19 transmissions in hospitals have surged fourfold since the restrictions were eased.

Also read: What we know about the ‘deltacron’ variant

The Federal government no longer requires hospitals to report the number of deaths of COVID patients every day. The guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated: “This field has been made inactive for federal data collection. Hospitals no longer need to report the data elements to the federal government.” The changes will come into effect from February 2.

Schools all over the U.S. have been kept open, which has led to the spread of infection among teachers and students and their families. In the latest COVID surge, children have been affected in greater numbers. President Joseph Biden had initially promised “to follow the science” in dealing with the pandemic. Instead, his administration now seems to be tilting towards the policy of “herd immunity” preferred by the Trump administration.

Speaking to the media on January 19 after completing one year in office, Biden did not bother to commiserate with the families of those who died of COVID-19. On January 19 alone, there were 2,374 COVID deaths. The current pandemic is the biggest health crisis the world and the U.S. has faced in this century. Biden stressed that his government was not going to implement another lockdown. “We’re not going back to lockdown,” he said. “We’re not going back to closing schools.”

Curve flattening in Africa

But there is some glimmer of good news from the African continent. The World Health Organisation (WHO) said in mid January that the fourth wave of the pandemic, driven primarily by the Omicron variant, is flattening. It has been the shortest surge in the continent. Deaths and hospitalisation in the latest wave have remained low in comparison to the previous ones. In South Africa, only 9 per cent of the intensive care unit beds were occupied in the second week of January.

Also read: What is the peak of omicron infections?

The Omicron variant, according to the WHO, outpaced Delta within a span of two weeks in the worst affected African countries. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, said: “Early indications suggest that Africa’s fourth wave has been steep and brief but no less destabilising. The crucial pandemic countermeasures needed for Africa still stand, and that is rapidly and significantly increasing COVID-19 vaccinations. The next wave may not be that forgiving.” Only around 10 per cent of Africans have been fully vaccinated.

Latin America

In Latin America, Brazil and Argentina seem to be the worst hit countries. As much as 65 per cent of the population in the region have been fully vaccinated, compared to 62 per cent in Europe and the U.S. Cuba, however, has the distinction of being the most vaccinated nation in the world. Despite being under the inhumane U.S. economic blockade, more than 90 per cent of its people have got both their doses. Despite the odds, the socialist nation has produced two home-grown vaccines. Thanks to the vaccines, the infection levels are at a very low level in Cuba, which, incidentally, had the highest infection rate in the Western hemisphere last summer.

Cuba plans to give its entire population a third booster shot by the end of January. Vincente Verez Bencomo, the Director General of the Finlay Institute for Vaccines in Havana, said: “Vaccine stocks were being hoarded by rich countries, and many poor countries were trying to access vaccines. So, we stepped into the breach.” Cuba has already started sending its vaccines to Vietnam, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Argentina has reported the most cases of infection so far despite the country accounting for only 11 per cent of Latin America’s population. Brazil, the region’s most populous state, is also experiencing a surge. The Bolsonaro government has failed to release figures claiming that the Health Ministry’s computers were hacked. Doctors in the country have told the media that medical services are on the verge of collapse owing to the increasing numbers of those affected and also because of medical staff being infected themselves.

Also read: Why COVID vaccines are partially effective against omicron

As expected, President Jair Bolsonaro played down the threat posed by the new mutation. “Herd immunity is a reality,” he said on January 12. “A person immunised with the virus has a lot more antibodies than a vaccinated person.” No leader, either in Latin America or the world, has been so openly sceptical about vaccine efficacy as the current President of Brazil.

Capitalist governments and financial elites have profited handsomely since the pandemic spread globally two years ago. An Oxfam report released on January 16, a day before the virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum, exposed the rapacious nature of neoliberalism in times of COVID. The report, titled “Inequality Kills”, has revealed that in the last two years the billionaire class all over the world, including India, have profited immensely from the pandemic.

The report stated that the pandemic had “triggered a spike in inequality within countries across the world”. A radical change in policies is needed to reverse the trend, it said. The policies through “which the rich and powerful double down on the privatisation of vaccines with self-defeating greed, allowing the pandemic to mutate and haunt us all”, will have to come to an end. The report pointed out that the world’s ten richest men have doubled their fortunes since the pandemic began in early 2020, while over 160 million people have been pushed into poverty during the same period.