The Omicron Threat

Economic recovery and a semblance of normality can be extremely tenuous. This should have a sobering effect on world leaders and the government in Mauritius

By Mrinal Roy

Just as many countries around the world were beginning to loosen or lift travel restrictions, Omicron, a new more transmissible coronavirus variant detected in South Africa, is spreading at an alarming rate and forcing countries across the world to reimpose border restrictions and quarantine rules to contain the Omicron surge. More and more countries are lifting their drawbridges and walling off to protect their population.

US Federal health officials said earlier this week that Omicron has raced ahead of other variants and is now the dominant variant of the coronavirus in the country and accounted for an estimated 73% of new infections last week. The US chief medical adviser has warned of ‘mounting stress on the US hospital system and front liners’. There is also added pressure on nurses, medical staff and health care workers. The US government has therefore deployed 1000 military medical personnel in hospitals to help fight the Omicron surge. It has advised its citizens to refrain from travelling to France, Portugal, Liechtenstein, Andorra and Cyprus

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared this week that there is now consistent evidence that Omicron is spreading significantly faster than the Delta variant and is causing infections in people already vaccinated or who have recovered from the Covid-19 disease. About a month after the discovery of the Omicron variant in November, Omicron infections have been reported in some 89 countries and counting. The WHO added that ‘even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the surge of the highly transmissible Omicron variant and the sheer number of cases risk overwhelming unprepared health systems and health care services of affected countries’.

The rapid spread of Omicron also poses a serious threat to economic recovery. Earlier this month the IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva had warned that the Omicron variant could slow the global economic recovery, just as the Delta strain did. She had predicted that ‘a new variant that spreads very rapidly can dent confidence and cause some downgrades of our October projections for global growth’. Global stock markets are lower. European stocks have fallen as Omicron worries intensify and investors fear that tighter restrictions to contain the Omicron surge hit economic recovery.

New restrictions

European leaders are reinstating coronavirus restrictions in a bid to curb the spread of the Omicron variant. Germany has tightened restrictions on travel from the UK, Denmark, France and Norway. Germany and Portugal have announced post-Christmas curbs and greater social distancing measures. France has banned non-essential travel with UK. The Netherlands has imposed a strict lockdown over Christmas. The EU countries have also been applying strict rules for persons who are travelling from Omicron-affected countries. The UK, Spain, Portugal and many countries have warned that they might have to tighten restrictions if the Omicron variant spreads.

Israeli voted this week to put the United States, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Canada, Switzerland and Turkey on the no-fly roster. Israel has become the first country to offer a fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose after the country’s first Omicron death.

Quarantine rules are being reimposed on travellers. Thailand has reinstated mandatory quarantine for foreign visitors. New Zealand has reimposed quarantine rules and announced this week that it would delay its re-opening plans until the end of February fearing a rapid spread of the Omicron variant in the country.

Across the world travel restrictions are being imposed to contain the spread of the Omicron variant. All these travel restrictions and rules are undermining the prospects of the beleaguered travel and tourism and hospitality industries ahead of the crucial Christmas and New Year holiday season.

No one is safe until everyone is safe

The Covid-19 Omicron spread is also fuelled by the crying inequity in the distribution of coronavirus vaccines in the world. According to the WHO, low-income countries, most of which are in Africa, the origin of Omicron, have received only 0.6 percent of the nearly 8 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses that have been administered worldwide. World leaders must realize that there must be unwavering solidarity and sharing of vaccines across the world as no one is safe until everyone is safe.

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant in the world should also be an eye opener for all. It has shown that humanity and the world remains extremely vulnerable even two years after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and despite the fact that more than 4.48 billion people worldwide have received a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, equal to about 58.4 percent of the world population. Economic recovery and a semblance of normality can also be extremely tenuous. This should have a sobering effect on world leaders and the government in Mauritius. This enduring Covid-19 crisis warrants a drastically different approach.

Way forward

The Covid-19 pandemic has also exposed the high dependence of the Mauritian economy on the tourism industry and real estate activities whose viability depends on the sale of high-end properties to foreigners and unrestricted air travel. Mauritius is therefore at a key crossroads. It is more than ever imperative to brainstorm viable and sustainable strategies going forward to recast the economic model so that it is grounded on higher value-added poles of activity and an upmarket services and product offer capable of significantly boosting growth, employment and standards of living and have a positive multiplier effect on the economy at large.

The surge of the Omicron variant also raises the question of the state of preparedness of the country to fight and stem the new potent Omicron threat. Instead of chest thumping about the management of the Covid-19 pandemic despite the hiccups and costly blunders, is it not time to mobilize our best medical specialists and other experts in relevant fields to provide an informed appraisal of the latest scientific data and findings on the evolution of the pandemic, vaccines, variants, efficacy of new drugs and the state of infection in the countries which are our main sources of tourists so that all decisions are grounded on and guided by the soundest scientific information and data available? These experts should also interface with a carefully chosen panel of world experts in the field to draw from their expertise and experience to guide our Covid-19 management strategy.

The strategy to contain and stem the pandemic has been predominantly Covid-19 ‘vaccine centric’. We must remember that the immunity provided by vaccines wane over time. It is therefore equally important for the panel to advise on the choice of proven treatment protocols and drugs required to provide the best treatment and cure to infected persons.

No other way

In a context where the unabated Covid-19 related death toll includes, according to the government data, many unvaccinated persons or persons with only one Covid-19 vaccine dose, shouldn’t the authorities track unvaccinated and partially vaccinated persons to vaccinate them at the earliest, especially as a majority of adults are fully vaccinated?

This is not a time for partisan politics and petty politicking but for national unity and solidarity. The end of the Covid-19 pandemic seems very elusive. Instead of a rabid and partisan divide, is it not time for the nation, the government, all politicians and the civil society to come together and unite our efforts and good will to contain and stem the Omicron threat and the Covid-19 pandemic for country and people. There is no other way.

* Published in print edition on 24 December 2021

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