Reports of a new COVID-19 variant, “Omicron,” have dominated news media coverage in recent days, causing the markets to plummet and governments across the globe to impose travel restrictions and other measures aimed at slowing transmission. The unfolding panic resembles that of the early summer, when the Delta variant was spreading widely and rapidly. What both of these episodes have in common is that they shattered prevailing optimism about the trajectory of the pandemic and called into question how much progress we have really made and when, if ever, COVID-19 will finally go away.
As it stands, there is neither a consensus on the state of the pandemic nor a cohesive plan for how to move forward. This jeopardizes our chances of either eliminating the virus or effectively living with it. The United States faces a crossroads in the present moment: We can either revamp efforts to control the spread of the virus, or we can place greater importance on the restoration of normal life, and let our fears of the virus subside. I am not advocating one approach over the other, but to pursue both simultaneously is an exercise in futility.
I would argue that in the U.S., if not in other countries as well, we have been both too quick to remove COVID-19 restrictions and too quick to bring them back, leaving people, businesses and institutions in a perpetual state of flux and anxiety. It also makes it harder to influence individual behavior for the public good. In May, for example, the White House claimed that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear a mask in public. At the time, many were ecstatic and believed this to be the beginning of the end of the pandemic. Yet, a little more than six months later, mask wearing remains common practice and cases nationwide are still in the tens of thousands.
This paradox of loose restrictions and high levels of active cases is bad for a couple of reasons. First, it calls into question the soundness of the initial claim that the fully vaccinated need not wear masks, which undermines public trust in both the government and the scientific community. Compromising the integrity of the scientific community is especially damaging because it may stymie vaccination efforts. Second, once it is declared that masks are no longer needed for vaccinated individuals, it is exceedingly difficult to walk this statement back. People are understandably displeased when you give them something, only to take it away shortly thereafter.
Acknowledging that it may have been imprudent to do away with COVID-19 precautions in spring 2021, it is also important to keep in mind that reversing course in response to the Delta variant may have been an overreaction. Even at the peak of the Delta surge, cases and deaths amongst the fully vaccinated remained relatively low and paled in comparison to the unvaccinated. An op-ed written for the Collegian earlier this year commented on this phenomenon and noted that some COVID-19 precautions, although well-intentioned, may be ineffective and unnecessary, especially for those who are vaccinated.
Important to contextualizing the drama surrounding Omicron is that, at the time I am writing this column, there is not yet hard scientific evidence that the variant is either more transmissible or deadly than previous ones. I write this not to minimize the potential dangers that Omicron could pose, but rather because it speaks to the tenuous nature of the progress we have made against COVID-19. Essentially, mere speculation of a dangerous variant can erode public confidence and prompt drastic action on the part of government officials.
So what can we learn from past experience with COVID-19 variants and how can we apply this to Omicron? For starters, President Biden’s suggestion that we combat the virus “not with shutdowns or with lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations” is a good one. However, Biden’s decision to restrict travel from certain countries in response to Omicron undermines this objective. Moreover, if news media coverage and financial markets are any indication, Biden’s sanguine outlook is shared by few.
At the very least, it would be premature to institute additional COVID-19 guidelines before scientists learn more about Omicron. In the meantime, officials should aim to calm the public by being transparent in their communications and urging patience until the situation becomes more clear. This will hopefully allow markets to settle and help maintain national morale. Omicron is also a reminder that the fight against COVID-19 is global, and the only long-term way to keep variants from developing is an international vaccine campaign.
Should scientists conclude that Omicron is more dangerous than previous variants, there must be a serious public discourse before deciding on new COVID-19 restrictions. Ultimately, we as a nation must decide if COVID-19 warrants disciplined and sustained mitigation for the foreseeable future (e.g., masks and social distancing), or if we should go about living our lives, accepting the risks that this would entail. But we cannot have it both ways. Prolonging half-measure restrictions only serves to draw out the pandemic, without the benefit of providing some sense of normalcy. If our current approach continues, months and years from now we’ll still have remote learning, shuttered businesses and lots of COVID-19.
Milo Levine ’23 is a columnist at the Collegian. He is an economics major from Mill Valley, Calif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.