Scientists around the globe are rushing to assess the threat of the newest Omnicron variant. Once again, the world, already fatigued by the waves of Coronavirus, is facing a renewed fear as governments are racing to cope with the pandemic.
The lists of countries with infections are rising, while researchers are scrambling to confirm if the variant invades immunities in the previously infected. Or if it weakens the efficacy of the vaccine. Definitive answers could take weeks.
What Do We Know About Omnicron Variant?
The Omnicron variant has a unique genetic profile that sets it apart from other circulating variants, indicating that it represents a new virus lineage.
A critical difference between this variant and others is that there are more mutations. For example, the spike protein, the type of protein on the virus that binds to cells and allows it to gain entry, has more than 30 mutations, according to Pulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation South Africa.
Scientists fear those mutations will make Omnicron more transmissible, making vaccines less effective since they may defy immune defenses. In addition, there is strong evidence that the Omnicron variant is highly contagious, possibly even more so than the delta variant.
The Global Response
President Joe Biden on Friday announced travel restrictions on eight Southern African countries. The banned countries include South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, and Botswana. Officials agree that travel bans are unnecessary, but they will help the government buy some time to learn more about the Omnicron variant.
Despite criticism and backlash from South Africa, other nations are restricting travel from southern African countries, including the UK, Australia, Israel, France, and Germany. But, on Friday, President Joe Biden also called on the wealthy nations capable of donating vaccines to help the poor and middle-class, especially in South Africa.
However, global vaccination campaigns pose more than just accessibility concerns. South Africa has been plagued by vaccine hesitancy. Last week, the government ordered drug companies to delay the delivery of new doses because demand has decreased, despite less than 30 percent of its adult population being vaccinated. Europe is presently facing a recent outbreak, at least in part because of uneven vaccination uptake and vaccine resistance.
Are Travel Restrictions the Right Way To Go?
While countries are shutting their borders, business and leaders argue against it, claiming travel restrictions can not be a viable solution to deal with the pandemic. Yet, even without much transmission, countries around the globe are shutting their doors by rapidly banning travelers from South African countries. Witnessing the agony of suffering nationals in South Africa, many officials are calling the curb measures draconian.
WHO also supports these African leaders, arguing travel bans are not the most effective way of halting the spread of concern variants. The scientists in South Africa also regret their transparency, as it is backfiring on them with bans globally.
The European Center for Disease and Control warns about the “high to very high” spread of the Omnicron variant throughout Europe. Governments fear that the contagiousness of the mutation can result in widespread infections and might not even be contained by lockdowns.
What Could Be The Best Response?
Increasing numbers of countries are restricting travel from southern Africa. In addition to government restrictions, people should weigh their own vulnerability to COVID and tolerance for risk when deciding whether to travel during the winter holidays.
Despite questions about effectiveness, vaccines should remain a priority since they are likely still protective to some extent. Everyone should also continue to avoid crowds, maintain social distancing, wear masks, ventilate rooms, and wash hands.
There is no doubt that vaccination remains important, especially for groups who are at high risk of hospitalization and death. However, the data has also shown that high vaccination rates also help in reducing the strain on the healthcare system significantly.
Omnicron Variant: Instructions from WHO
WHO has released the following guidelines for countries to follow in light of the Omnicron variant:
- To better understand the circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants, expand surveillance and sequencing efforts.
- Genome sequences must be submitted to a public database, such as GISAID.
- Using the IHR mechanism, report initial cases/clusters associated with VOC infections to WHO.
- When capacity exists and in coordination with the international community, conduct field investigations and laboratory assessments to learn more about possible impacts of VOCs on COVID-19 epidemiology, severity, diagnostic methods, immunity, antibody neutralization, the effectiveness of public health and social measures, and other relevant characteristics.
These precautions are especially important during the holiday season and cold weather when many people gather indoors. The New York Times’ Covid-19 tracker indicates that the number of new cases in the United States has increased by 10% over the past two weeks, with an average of 85,000 new cases per day, 52,000 hospitalizations, and about 1,000 deaths. Whereas, the percentage of vaccine-eligible Americans has reached almost 75 percent as of November 24, increasing the fear of the new, more contagious variant evermore.
Also Read: End of the Pandemic: Can We Live with COVID?
How China’s Zero COVID Policy Killed Thousands in Shanghai?
Under China’s unbending virus control policy, the country’s most populous city, Shanghai is under full lockdown. In addition, an atrocious policy in place by the ruling regime is separating young children and babies from their parents when tested positive for COVID-19.
But, what has led one of the most developed cities to the nightmare, it is living in today? How China’s Zero-COVID policy is killing thousands across the nation? And is there a way out?
Shanghai and Zero COVID Policy: The Unfolding Nightmare
On many fronts, Shanghai, one of the biggest city globally, is under a strict lockdown. Amongst the deserted market and streets, over 26 million residents are confined to their homes and breaking through the silence, the drones dictating restrictions and instructions of the locked citizens.
Shortage of food, water, and medicines, over-burdened delivery network, and growing protest to open the lockdown depict the chaotic picture of Shanghai. But, Shanghai is not alone; across China, some 23 cities, homing 200 million people are living under full or partial lockdowns.
The impact closure poses a severe impact on the Chinese economy and global supply chain. The lockdowns in the first wave of COVID led to a historic collapse in economic activities in China, and now with the Omicron lockdown, indicators are plunging again.
But, despite the draconian lockdown and security measures, new COVID cases are shooting off the roof, reflecting the high transmissibility of the mutated virus.
What is China’s Zero COVID Policy
As one of the strictest steps taken toward curbing the spread of the contagious virus, China has once again adopted the Zero COVID policy.
The matric watched the number of cases found among people who aren’t yet in quarantines. Unfortunately, this figure may continue to climb in Shanghai, and the authorities will consider an outbreak contained until the indicator known as Zero infection in society reaches zero.
The current approach tries to reduce transmission and extend the time available.
China believes that removing sick people from society is the most effective way to stop the spread of the disease. Still, quarantine facilities are divisive, producing widespread concern and terror among residents.
The primarily variant resulting in the situation is China’s low vaccination rate for the elderly, especially amongst the most vulnerable category of citizen over 80-years-old( a little over 20%). Furthermore, to add fuel to the fire vaccination campaigns have been slowing down dramatically.
How Bad is the Situation in Shanghai?
Shanghai’s local government has some special autonomy under President Xi Jinping’s China; as a province-level city, it is officially under the supervision of the central government, but it has a unique status as the country’s financial capital and an emblem of China’s accomplishments for the rest of the world.
The local administration had managed the pandemic adequately up until March, with no major breakouts. However, the quick arrival of the Omicron variety and the severe government actions accompanying it are pushing some residents to the edge.
Shanghai reported 27,719 new infections on April 14, a new record high for daily cases. But, astonishingly, 95% of these new infections are now among people in quarantine or living within a closed-loop system. The government has been testing the entire city’s population every day, and anyone who tests positive is removed from their homes and sent to centralized quarantine facilities.
The Chinese political leadership has put itself in a difficult situation by emphasizing the zero-COVID goal. If it persists, it will hamper the country’s economic recovery by exacting expenses that the people no longer consider justifiable.
However, if COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed, illnesses and fatalities will skyrocket as the virus spreads across a population lacking the protection observed in most other comparable nations.
When Will the Lockdowns End?
Once the zero COVID is achieved, Shanghai can start reopening the city. There is no timetable on when this can be achieved; however, with the new cases rising every day, it is most likely that the nightmarish lockdowns can continue for several more weeks.
Also Read: End of the Pandemic: Can We Live with COVID?
But, people are frustrated, mentally exhausted, and begging to get out. For many, this ordeal will shift how they view China as the future. While different variants of COVID killed millions around the globe, China remained a safe haven.
But, now the tables have turned.
The Urgent Needs for a Dynamic Zero-COVID Policy
Though the Chinese authorities will ultimately get the situation in Shanghai and around the country under control, the collateral damage created by the rigorous lockdown much outweighs the actual deaths inflicted by COVID at the moment.
As more cities in China sweep under lockdown, the country may again be cut off from both the inside and the outside. Moreover, what residents have gone through for the past few weeks can negatively impact their physical and mental health. As a result, the government must likewise place a premium on citizens’ mental and physical well-being.
The most vulnerable individuals should be vaccinated first, and strong safety measures should be put in place to allow regular life to continue in the state. Without these changes, the country’s economy would plummet, local firms would be forced to close, unemployment will soar, and public opinion will shift.
As a result, it’s critical to implement a dynamic zero-COVID policy that allows residents to normally go about their daily lives.
End of the Pandemic: Can We Live with COVID?
Sajid Javid, UK’s health care secretary, warns COVID could be here forever. Many European countries are calling for a new approach, claiming the infections must not be dealt with as a health emergency but an illness. So, is the pandemic approaching its end? Is it time we learn to live with COVID?
Pandemic to Endemic
After two years of multiple crippling waves, strict lockdowns, and millions dead, several countries are ready to leave the pandemic in the past. The new Omicron wave is breaking infection records across the world, but the hospitalization need and deaths are way down compared to previous waves, especially for vaccinated individuals.
The low mortality is sparking hope in many health care experts that COVID infections can now be treated as an endemic. We have learned to live with many illnesses in the past, and officials are proposing to add COVID to the list.
Despite the skyrocketing infections, many countries are easing the curbs, while countries like Ireland and the U.K. are dropping most of the restrictions.
Contrary to the European countries, the World Health Organization is declaring the pandemic far from over. According to the officials, the death rate of the current variant is still too high to go easy on the infections.
“Now is not the time to give up on the strategy. The virus (omicron) is circulating at a very intense level around the world.”Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, American epidemiologist
The Forever Pandemic
Omicron complicates the question of when this pandemic will end, but pandemics do eventually end. Yet coexisting with a virus as contagious as the Coronavirus would not be as easy as flipping a switch.
As an exhausted world tries to stem the spread of the ultra-contagious omicron mutant, cases are at an all-time high and causing chaos. However, this time we won’t have to start from scratch.
Although vaccines do not always prevent mild infections, they offer strong protection against serious illness. Omicron does not seem to be as dangerous as some earlier variants. Those who survive it will have a chance to bolster their defense against other variations of the virus that are still circulating. And perhaps the next mutant will emerge, too.
It won’t be long before the World Health Organization determines when enough countries have curb COVID-19 cases sufficiently – or at least, deaths and hospitalization have fallen – to officially deem the pandemic over. However, the exact threshold is unclear.
In that case, some parts of the world will still struggle – particularly those without enough vaccines or treatments – while other parts will be able to transition more easily to what researchers call an “endemic” state.
Could More Deadly Variants Emerge?
The coronavirus is not certain of remaining less deadly: It might evolve again and become more dangerous. Scientists in Sweden share that concern, writing in an opinion piece for POLITICO: “Allowing large amounts of contamination to circulate is like opening Pandora’s box of unpleasant surprises. The last variant we have seen is hardly the last.”
According to Professor David Heymann of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, there is always the risk of a dangerous mutation. However, he noted that the high level of immunity in the U.K. should guide a different approach. We should perform our own risk assessments instead of relying on top-down decision-making methods like lockdowns. You could, for instance, test yourself before leaving the house for dinner, or avoid potentially infected people if there is a risk, says David.
“The pandemic is no where near over. With the incredible growth of Omicron globaly, new variants are likely to emerge.”Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General WHO
Fighting & Living with the COVID
Despite the fact that industrialized nations actively aim to protect their populations by boosting their vaccinations for adults and extending vaccinations to children, we can no longer expect to inject people every four to six months in the face of new variants. To counter this threat, vaccinations will have to be provided annually – preferably with products that are effective against all types of Coronaviruses – and repeated exposure to an infection that is certain to become endemic sooner or later.
In the world “living with COVID,” governments and regulators should encourage the innovation of new vaccine technologies that will complement Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer’s mRNA products duopoly. Furthermore, more investment should be made in antiviral drugs that might play a greater role in suppressing symptoms among infected people.
At the beginning of 2020, we might have had a slim chance of eliminating Covid-19, but they are long gone. Controlling the pandemic has been justified so far as a global health emergency; however, they cannot continue forever.
Too many collateral damages would result, including harm to social cohesion, mental health and wellbeing, and the global economy. Sars-Cov-2 and its descendants will require more resilience in the coming year so that the most vulnerable can be protected while causing less disruption.
Plastic Pollution: Environmental Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic
2020 was supposed to be the “Supper Year” for nature. The world was all set for major opportunities to bring nature back from the verge. And then the catastrophe happened, Coronavirus, setting long-held plans for battling climate change back. And, now the pandemic is adding more complexities to the already dire crisis: Plastic Pollution.
2022: The New Dawn
After falling significantly due to the great lockdowns, Carbon Dioxide emissions are expected to return to the pre-pandemic level in 2022. China has already surpassed its emission due to the extensive use of coal.
The coronavirus crisis has only given the environment a small intermission. Now an unprecedented consumption boom, encouraged by the leaders to boost the economy, is fueling the demand. Furthermore, as a safety measure, people have started avoiding public transportation and driving more.
But, the most visible legacy of the pandemic, plastic waste, is filling water bodies with toxins.
Masks: Life-Saving Plastic Pollution?
Do you wear masks? How many masks do you own? Are all your masks reusable?
The recent popularity of masks has made them an integral part of our lives. Without a shadow of a doubt, it saves lives and protects us from infections. Yet, the disposal of used masks has been sparking major waste management and plastic pollution discussions worldwide, especially in South Asia.
A new form of wastes is now turning up into the ocean, masks. Whether higher-grade respiratory masks or basic surgical masks and single-use gloves, these used clinical wastes all belong in incinerators. According to an estimate, over 1.5 million plastic masks ended up in oceans. just in 2021.
Face masks, gloves, and wipes are composed of a variety of plastic fibers, primarily polypropylene, which remains in the environment for decades, possibly centuries, forming smaller and smaller microplastics and nano plastics. According to a study in Environmental Advances, one face mask releases as many as 173,000 microfibers per day into the sea.
Single-Use Plastic Packaging
In spite of the closure of physical shops and financial uncertainty, online sales of goods are on the rise even though consumption (and packaging) may have declined overall. There has been an increase in the use of plastic and another single-use packaging for parcel deliveries from e-commerce.
Also during the lockdown, there has been a decline in the use of single-use plastic containers for food. As many restaurants have shifted to takeout services, packaging has increased and commuting, traveling, and leisure activities decreased. This may have reduced the demand for on-the-go food and drinks.
But the staggering spike in at-home deliveries, drying up recycling market, and economics of plastics have added more to the complexities.
Efforts to curb plastic waste have come at a complicated time with regard to PPE litter. The ocean’s plastic waste is expected to triple, and there is no clear solution in sight. However, the shift would reduce the projected tripling of plastics by just 7 percent if every corporation kept its pledge to use more recycled plastics.
Due to the pandemic, disposable packaging has also increased as people purchase more takeout food. Plastic bag bans have been suspended because of fears that reusable bags will spread the virus. Similarly, a third of recycling companies in the United States have closed due to cash-strapped municipal budget cuts.
Elevated Plastic Pollution
Even before the pandemic, South Asia was the largest source of plastic wastes. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are amongst the top 20 countries notorious for creating the most mismanaged plastic waste.
The Ganges and Indus, flowing through these countries, are listed as some of the most polluted rivers systems, swallowing over 90% of the region’s plastic waste. A report from Washington Post reveals that the world has created about 8 million tons of plastic during the pandemic, most of which are now in the oceans.
Littered masks and gloves are carried like tumbleweeds into rivers and streams, where they reach the sea. As a result, the presence of sea turtles has been documented on beaches in South America, river outlets in Jakarta Bay, in Bangladesh, on the coast of Kenya, and on Hong Kong’s uninhabited Soko Islands. In addition, wasted personal protective equipment has clogged street drains from New York City to Nairobi and is clogging Vancouver, British Columbia’s municipal sewage system.
Plastic Pollution: No Silver Bullet
Now, entering 2022, the super year for nature is still on the waiting list. A single silver bullet can’t solve the plastic pollution problem globally across the rivers and oceans. For sustainable production, management, and disposal, plastics require interventions at all stages of their lifecycle: from production and preventing contamination to solid waste management and transitioning to a circular economy.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, plastic pollution has been exacerbated in Asia. The World Bank is working to reduce plastic pollution in South Asian nations for the billions of people whose livelihoods rely on clean rivers and seas. However, to recover from the pandemic in a greener and more resilient manner, countries, especially the most vulnerable ones, will need new policies, investments, and innovations.
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