Oh! Micron

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

What’s in a name? – is a well-known expression. An online check informs us that it is a reference to English playwright Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, wherein is found the line ‘that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.’ The implication is that what someone or something is called or labelled is not important compared to their or its intrinsic qualities.

Where the coronavirus causing the current pandemic is concerned, however, giving it an acceptable – politically correct? — name became a matter of weighty concern for the WHO, which has a committee to decide on such issues. WHO’s best practices for naming disease suggest avoiding causing offence to ‘cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.’ Thus, in some quarters, it was believed that the name SARS-COV-2 was specially chosen to eschew any mention of Wuhan so as not to cause ‘offence’ to superpower China. When variants were discovered in other countries and they were prefixed by the name of the country, WHO decided that instead the Greek alphabet would henceforth be used to label them and any future ones.

And the same logic was applied to the new variant Omicron: in a statement WHO said it passed over ‘nu’ to avoid confusion (too easily confounded with ‘new’) and ‘Xi’ was not used because it is a common last name. Again, some observers pointed to the WHO avoiding anything resembling allusion to the name of the Chinese President.

However, this doesn’t end there, for I found a… variation on the theme a few days ago when I was listening to a coverage of the surge in France on France 24. I was somewhat amused to hear the TV anchor pronouncing Omicron as ‘Omicronne.’ Given the debates that have taken place about naming, I was led to wonder whether this pronunciation was chosen because the ‘micron’ if pronounced in the usual French way would be but a brush away from the French President’s name. Interesting.

However, this little digression by way of infotainment notwithstanding, it does not detract from the fact that the continuing and rapid spread of Omicron is inevitable, as it has been confirmed in nearly 120 countries. The numbers of Delta and Omicron variants being detected are rising every day. The countries with the highest daily numbers as of date are the USA (265,000), England (156,000), and France which crossed the 100,000 mark for the first time.

What is very concerning, more so in the USA, is the increase in the number of children under 12 that have been infected and a growing percentage of them needing admission, especially in New York, from where during the first wave last year there was the first report of about 200 children displaying an inflammatory condition known as ‘Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C).’ Though most of them recovered, a few did not, succumbing to inflammation of the heart or myocarditis. Nearly 300,000 children have had Covid in the US, and there have been 28 deaths.

The major worry expressed by medical professionals in all countries is that their already overstretched health systems may be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers that will require admission, out of whom inevitably there will be those requiring oxygen support or admission to ICUs. The situation is compounded by the fact that many medical, nursing and health personnel are themselves falling sick, and this naturally impacts patient care.

Different countries are adopting their own versions of restrictions, from none (England) to full lockdown. Every country is fearing and bracing for the surge that is going to follow the festive days ahead.

Locally, we are just out of the traumatizing wave that came in the wake of the multi-holiday first week of November, allied to the opening of schools, which most health professionals had warned about and anticipated. Now we just keep our fingers crossed for the scenario that may hit us towards the second week of January 2022. Unless we decide to shun crowded venues and be very observant of the well-known sanitary precautions that have been repeatedly stressed upon.

For Christmas, we did show the restraint that had been appealed for by various stakeholders: not to explode firecrackers out of respect for the loss of so many of our citizens during that wave, a loss that we have felt collectively and more so the suffering and grieving that it has caused. Let us hope and pray that the same spirit will prevail for New Year, and that on 31st December 2021 midnight there will not be a deafening burst of explosives and the skies set aflame.

On the other hand, the increase in the price of fuel that came into force two days ago does signal a continuation of the trend of rising costs across the board which began shortly after the pandemic became established last year. We don’t need to be financial wizards to know from firsthand experience that we are getting less for the rupee than what we could get at the same time last year.

Paying more for less is likely to be an ongoing reality we will have to reckon with, and therefore adjust accordingly as regards our needs. This applies especially to those who are struggling at the lower rungs of the social ladder, though the middle class also has been no less impacted. Sure, there are external factors as regards the supply chain, but in these difficult times that are likely to last for an indeterminate duration, a sense of solidarity must prevail. And the state must also come in support of citizens and lighten their burden through the regulatory and other mechanisms at its disposal.

It is difficult to sustain hope or to be optimistic, for just as we thought we were gaining control over the Delta variant, along has come variant Omicron which now is dominant the world over. There are likely to be more variants. But this time next year, I pray that I will be able to wish a full-throated Happy New Year. Until then, we will need plenty of courage and resilience.

* Published in print edition on 31 December 2021

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