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Capitalism Must Not Dictate Our Response to Omicron Variant

In the face of the virus’s new iteration, we must prioritize saving lives.

A woman wearing a face mask walks past Black Friday advertisements in Brussels, Belgium, on November 26, 2021.

If you did yourself a weary solid and set the news aside for the long holiday weekend, like as not you’ve spent a portion of today doomscrolling through reports on the newest COVID-19 variant to rear its ugly head.

Omicron. The World Health Organization (WHO) just had to pick the scariest sounding name, didn’t they. It seems like they tried to name this thing after one of the Decepticons. It is also the name of the planet where Dr. Noonian Soong created the androids Data and Lore, in case any of you Star Trek TNG fans were wondering where you’d heard it before.

But enough frivolity. This is deadly serious: Top COVID expert Anthony Fauci warns that the Omicron variant could fuel an impending fifth wave of the virus. We’re all veterans of this virus now, and we’re all exhausted, but unless our luck and our policies change, we are potentially facing an even gloomier winter than some of us predicted before Omicron reared its head.

What we know, which isn’t much at this point: Omicron, first discovered by South African scientists, carries what some researchers called a “horrific” number of variations from the original COVID, was labeled a “variant of concern” by the WHO on Friday. It has been found in South Africa, Botswana, Australia, Hong Kong, Israel, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Britain, Scotland and Canada.

What we don’t know: The large number of mutations in Omicron could make it more easily transmissible than previous iterations, and because of those mutations, “there could be future surges of Covid-19, which could have severe consequences,” according to a Friday WHO report. Some reports suggest the symptoms of Omicron are milder than some other variants’ symptoms, but the sample data for this hypothesis came from a younger-than-usual group of infected people and could be skewed.

Scientists are racing to determine if Omicron’s mutations can enable it to evade immunity protections present in those who have previously been infected. They are also laboring to determine if the current slate of vaccines and boosters will still be effective against the new variant. These answers should be coming in the next week or two, but Pfizer and Moderna have undertaken a crash program to reformulate their vaccines in order to specifically target Omicron just in case.

Is Omicron already present in the U.S.? No cases have been detected yet, but the fact that it has appeared in Canada strongly suggests the variant is already among us. “We have not detected it yet,” Fauci told Weekend TODAY, “but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re already having travel-related cases that they’ve noted in Israel and Belgium and other places, when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over.”

The speed with which governments have reacted to the appearance of Omicron speaks to the potential peril of this variant, and to the degree to which the world is weary of getting outmaneuvered by the virus. Much of this immediacy is spurred by the fact that many places around the world, including the U.S., are already dealing with a new surge in COVID cases. A sudden onslaught of Omicron infections would be immediately devastating.

Travel restrictions have been hastily put in place for whatever good they will do — “By the time we have enough information to institute a travel ban, the cat’s already out of the bag, so to speak,” warns University of Washington professor and researcher Nicole A. Errett — and the Biden administration has been at top voice saying now is an excellent time to get the shots if you haven’t already.

However, not everyone is on board with the idea that unity and haste must be the watchwords of the moment. Republicans in several states are seeking to financially reward people who quit or lose their jobs because they refuse to get vaccinated, and they wouldn’t be Republicans without yet another preposterous conspiracy theory: Ronny Jackson, current Texas GOP Representative and former Trump White House physician, is calling Omicron the “Midterm Election variant,” alleging the mutation is actually a Democratic plot to upend the 2022 elections, “but we’re not going to let them!” They are nothing if not consistent, and are persistent to a double fault.

As we gaze once again into a maw of fear and uncertainty, I have one humble request for the powers-that-be: Let’s not listen to capitalism so much this time, yeah?

We’ve tried it their way for going on two years now, and all we have is close to a million people dead to show for it. The very corporations clamoring to rush people back into infected work spaces are the ones funding Republicans who rally their people to resist the vaccines. They have no interest in public health. Their goal is private wealth, and as far as they are concerned, wealth must be extracted at all costs.

From the beginning, there have been a number of scientifically sound tactics to thwart this damnable thing. They were ignored during the last year of Trump’s tenure, and remain well behind where they should be under Biden.

Those tactics are right in front of us, here and now: testing regimens involving several tests over time, more intensive and widespread testing and tracing, and a re-re-emphasis on masking and vaccinations. These measures must be accompanied by restrictions and/or lockdowns when they are needed, not when they are financially convenient for the powerful.

Science needs to drive the bus this time — science, and a genuinely effective push to vaccinate the entire world, cost be damned — and let the engine of greed idle for a while. There will still be billionaires once we get past Omicron. The question before us is whether we care enough about everyone else. We should know better by now. Let’s find out if we do.

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