Published Janurary 3, 2022
The new omicron Covid-19 variant is good news. Probably.
Pushed by media panic, some governments are cracking down, again, as the omicron strain spreads. But while omicron seems to be very contagious, it also appears to be significantly less dangerous than either the original recipe coronavirus or the delta variant.
How much of this change is due to increased population resistance from vaccines and prior infections, and how much is due to differences between viral strains, is still being studied, but there are reasons to believe omicron is intrinsically less likely to cause serious illness or death. This is not, of course, to say that omicron is harmless, only that it is, on average, less harmful.
Of course, all the usual caveats about early days and early data apply to our understanding of the variant. Back in March 2020, I laid out some reasons we could not count on a milder COVID-19 variant to bail us out of the pandemic, and for nearly two (very long) years this counsel held true.
But now the right mutation may have happened at the right moment. Still, it is reasonable for scientists, doctors, and officials to want better data before making optimistic pronouncements.
It is also reasonable for them to fear that omicron, even if it is less severe, could still contribute to a difficult winter surge of coronavirus cases. In terms of health-care capacity, the gains from a less-dangerous variant could be offset by more cases overall. And there are worries about how much protection vaccines and previous infections provide against this new variant.
Thus, it makes sense that doctors and public health officials aren’t declaring the advent of omicron to be good tidings of great joy just yet, even if they have hope that it is good news in the long run. That said, if the data holds up it is probably good news in the long run.
Yet this possibility is being largely ignored by the corporate media and public officials, whose caution is one-sided, reserved only for possible good news. Thus, they have tended to treat omicron as a harbinger of doom.
This reaction is apparently due to a reluctance to accept that COVID-19 is endemic and that the goal of Zero Covid is a fantasy. We are never going to get rid of this virus. Even if the United States were able to eliminate it, the virus would continue to spread and mutate throughout the rest of the world, and swiftly return to our shores.
Consequently, we should all expect to get infected at some point. Yes, we must strive to protect the vulnerable, such as the elderly and immunocompromised; that was true in general even before the specific danger of COVID. But the rest of us need to learn to live with the possibility of infection, rather than imagining a world without this virus.
This reality does not mean that all mitigation efforts were futile — it is better to get COVID now, with superior treatments and after vaccines have given the immune system a warmup or two, than in April 2020. But many measures were less effective or more costly than we hoped, and it is past time to reevaluate them in light of medical advances and the endemic reality of the coronavirus.
Unfortunately, the continued presence of COVID is often used to justify extending policies that impose real harm while doing little or nothing to slow the spread or save lives. For example, Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said that he expects masks to be a permanent imposition on airplanes, even though at this point they amount to little more than a toddler travel ban.
Indeed, the insistence of our nation’s leaders on masking children who are still learning to speak is a cruelty with no scientific basis. In this, it is like many of the worst pandemic policies, which have needlessly kept children (the least vulnerable among us, thank God) from school, family and friends.
More generally, the focus on masks is hopelessly outdated. When worn correctly, some face coverings, such as N95 masks, provide some protection against coronavirus spread. But even at their best, masks were a stopgap, an attempt to do something when there were few other tools available. At this point, requiring or encouraging people to wear masks is just pandemic security theater.
It is time to accept that we are all going to be infected at some point, though many of us won’t even notice it when it happens. A few voices in the corporate media are slowly coming around, and are rightly reassuring their readers that getting COVID is not, as many of them have believed, a mark of moral disgrace.
Thus, rather than retreating back into the crude tactics of early 2020, we should accept the persistence of COVID-19 and live with it as we do so many other diseases. This does not mean doing nothing, but we should focus on what is effective, rather than what is symbolically satisfying for some people. For example, former President Trump’s recent comments encouraging Americans to get vaccinated will likely do more good than all the double and triple-jabbed people still wearing their (often useless) masks to the grocery store.
For those who have mistakenly assumed that COVID-19 can be eradicated, the contagiousness of omicron seems disastrous. But for those who know that COVID-19 will always be with us, omicron seems like an improvement.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.