South Africa led the way by handling a much milder – though more easily transmitted – COVID-19 wave by doing very little. The United Kingdom tried feverishly to halt the spread of the Omicron variant with little effect. In light of this experience, several European countries now seem to be shifting their strategies from pandemic response to endemic management.
Omicron emerged in South Africa sometime around mid-November, and its seven-day case average peaked on December 18. During this time, the government did nothing to stop the virus. There were practically no lockdowns, social distancing, or limitations on movement. People were busy surviving daily life, and buses were packed full of folks transmitting COVID-19 at an extraordinarily rapid pace. Only a minority were vaccinated. Few were hospitalized, and even fewer died.
Living with the Virus
The U.K. followed a very different path. The first Omicron case in that country was documented on November 27, only trailing South Africa by two weeks. The British government, however, tried to slow the spread of the virus with mask and vaccine mandates. It made no difference. Despite all efforts, Omicron cases peaked January 5, with a week slower spread than South Africa. Now that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has landed in hot water due to government staff parties held in violation of lockdown rules, it is rumored he will soon be withdrawing all COVID restriction plans, including COVID passports, and allowing the nation to return to normal life.
Hospitalization and death data confirms what scientists already suspected: Omicron is mild compared to other COVID-19 variants. There is a growing consensus among experts that Omicron will bring an end to the pandemic. Everyone gets infected, it is mild, and it appears to provide natural immunity to other COVID-19 variants. Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first world leader that publicly identified it as a potential natural vaccine.
Denmark is turning that assessment into policy. Søren Brostrøm, director of the Danish Health Authority, told the press they are looking into treating COVID-19 as an endemic seasonal flu rather than a pandemic. And rather than vaccine mandates, passports, lockdowns, masks, and social distancing, he said they are considering “a seasonal vaccine targeting only risk groups,” meaning the elderly and people who have comorbidities. Other Scandinavian countries greeted this news with similar sentiments; Norway announced this would ease the restrictions put in place during December.
The Opposite Route
Not all European countries are embracing the endemic management approach, however. On Sunday, January 16, France passed a new law that would ban the unvaccinated from entering business premises including cafes, restaurants, sports venues, and others. Prior to this, citizens were able to utilize a negative test result to gain entry. In Greece, people over the age of 60 who remain unjabbed face a minimum of a €50 ($57) fine per month until they receive the vaccine.
Austria will become the first European nation to begin a general vaccine mandate next month for all those over the age of 18. Those who refuse will be charged €3,600 ($4,100). From March, police will have the power to check vaccination status during routine stops; those who cannot provide proof of status will be fined up to €600 ($685).
Experts define a virus as endemic if it is “consistent and predictable.” That doesn’t mean it disappears. Instead, the pathogen becomes manageable as just another seasonal virus. More experts agree that Omicron will soon be the only remaining variant. Since it is mild and provides natural immunity against other known strains, it should effectively end the pandemic.
When will Omicron peak in the United States? If it follows the same development as in the U.K., it already did so on January 16. Will President Joe Biden follow the European nations and recognize that the pandemic is disappearing?
~ Read more from Caroline Adana.