Editorial: New Year in the time of coronavirus

All over the world, the New Year has been rung in with a dash of anxiety and a smidgeon of hope. Ironically, these opposite feelings are generated by the very same thing – Omicron.
Editorial: New Year in the time of coronavirus
Representative image.

Chennai

In the short span of its existence, the newest kid from the COVID block has exhibited surges so sharp that there is precious little doubt that it will receive worldwide attention during the first few months of 2022. Omicron numbers have begun to eclipse Delta already, and soon they will be astronomically higher.
What does it mean for us? First the bad news. Although Omicron is milder than previous mutations, it has a dizzying ability to spread and dodge the immune system. If it infects a large number of people, particularly the aged and those with comorbidities, the possibility of it putting a heavy strain on medical infrastructure cannot be overlooked. Another challenge is to find a suitable modification to the existing vaccines to combat Omicron, a task that is already underway. Although another lockdown will cripple the global economy, it remains to be seen how individual countries will deal with the issue of imposing restrictions on work, schooling and travel. Already, some panicked nations in Europe have rushed to impose fresh curbs.
Bad though all of this sounds, Omicron holds out a self-contradictory sliver of hope. Although we may never eradicate COVID-19, could Omicron be just the thing that shifts the world from a pandemic phase to an endemic one? If it shifts to the latter, it means as the virus circulates around the world, it will become easier to manage, and end up being no more nastier or no more worrying than influenza, or the common cold.
Such optimism comes with many riders of course. It is by no means certain that Omicron will speed up endemicity by infecting huge populations of people, thereby providing them with a measure of natural immunity. What happens if it fails to go so far and, as a result, ends up rolling back the pathway to endemicity? How good a year 2022 is going to be depends on such uncertain questions.
It is next to impossible to sum up our expectations for the New Year without calling attention to the Omicron in the room. We’re all experiencing a collective feeling of deja vu, that hasn’t quite changed since the past two years. As India has breached the 1,500 mark in terms of net infections of Omicron, most of the states opted to keep their reveries of New Year’s Eve to the minimum, and there is a trepidation over a potential third wave and subsequent lockdowns as witnessed during the first and second waves of the pandemic.
But whatever happens, it is important to remember that we are much more equipped to fight COVID-19 than before. We have vaccines, work is on to modify them, and soon we will roll out antiviral pills. We have harvested huge reams of data on how coronavirus works, we have learnt to alter our behaviour to impede its spread, and we have noted with delight that the savage Omicron wave in South Africa, where it struck first, has fallen considerably. We have shown grit and resolve, qualities that we need to carry forward into 2022.

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