The campaign to beat the pandemic

Comment Omicron: why nobody is safe until everyone is safe

02 December 2021 / Joan Twelves

The emergence of something like the Omicron Covid-19 variant was entirely predictable – and predicted by international scientists, health experts and campaigners. As the heads of both the World Health Organisation and the United Nations have repeatedly said: Nobody is safe until we are all safe.

Since the brilliant and speedy discovery of vaccines against Covid-19, the rich countries of the world have practiced vaccine apartheid against the global South. Repeated calls by South Africa and India, supported by Biden’s USA, have failed to overcome dogmatic opposition by a group of high-income countries including the EU, the UK and Switzerland, to their landmark proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property rights on COVID-19 medical products.

Without that patent waiver, along with a willingness by Big Pharma to share know-how and expertise and for the G7 rich countries to honour their promises to provide funding and equipment from labs to syringes, the people of every country of the world are being condemned to wave after wave of death and disease.

To date, 42.6% of the world’s population has been fully vaccinated. But only 3% of people in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated. Lower middle-income countries have fully vaccinated 26.6% of their people. That’s a huge difference compared with 67.3% in high income countries, and 62.9% in upper middle-income countries.

African countries have administered 234.7 million doses. That means 7.1% of the population of the continent is fully vaccinated.

There isn’t a shortage of vaccines. 9.1bn vaccines have already been manufactured and 12bn are expected by the year’s end – enough to vaccinate the whole world. The problem is one of capitalist politics and distribution.

Here in the UK, we are faced with a government which will always put profits before people, whether at home or abroad. Having let the virus rip since ‘Freedom Day’ on 19 July – and nonchalantly presided over around 1,000 deaths per week and 40-50,000 new cases per day since then – the threat of Omicron has forced it to take some baby steps to look as though it is heeding the warnings of its chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, that they should “go hard and go early”.

Hard? A mask mandate in shops (but not pubs), on buses and trains, and in school corridors (but not classrooms) is hardly hard. All these mitigatory measures and more have been in place in the UK’s devolved nations for months. Early? That’s questionable given that they are the least of the measures that should have remained in place to fight Delta, not wait for the predictable Omicron to arrive.

While we welcome the extension of the vaccine booster programme in the UK – and would welcome it even more if it went hand-in-hand with the UK supporting the TRIPS waiver at the WTO – the Zero Covid campaign is not alone in calling for an immediate change of strategy and for less reliance on solely pharmaceutical solutions.

While nobody knows how resistant to the existing vaccines and how deadly Omicron may prove to be, the speed of its community transmission in South Africa shows that it is extremely infectious. To stop not just the spread of Omicron but also of the dominant Delta variant, we have always supported sensible mitigation measures – ventilation (especially in schools), mandatory mask-wearing in all public places, social distancing, the right to work and study from home where possible with all necessary practical, psychological and financial support, including increased sick pay, for those required to self-isolate or shield.

We also need an effective Test & Trace system – and it is very worrying that the government is looking to charge for LFT tests and start dismantling the whole system (which, however inadequate, is all we’ve got unless they finally recognise that this is best done by local authority public health teams and give them the funding to do it). PCR tests for travellers should be free and carried out prior to travel.

These measures are what is needed to avoid the lockdown that no one wants. But if the government continues to ignore the science, including advice on how to tackle new variants, and to refuse to mandate the implementation of the most basis public health protections, it is their mixed messages, their disastrous policies that could very well lead to another lock down this Xmas as the fourth/fifth wave hits, whether that goes by the name of Omicron or Delta.

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