Another holiday season, another Covid strain to quintuple-mask against. This one, discovered in South Africa last week, is called omicron, and how fitting that it sounds like the codename for some evil plan that was hatched in a volcanic lair. The omicron variant feels like nothing so much as a twelfth-in-ten-years action movie sequel, derivative and exhausting, asked for by no one, with even Vin Diesel and The Rock unable to tell each other apart anymore.
Omicron is the fifteenth letter of the Greek alphabet, meaning Covid has already produced a couple dozen other variants. (The WHO, which names the strains, skipped nu, the thirteenth letter, so it wouldn’t be confused with “new,” as well as xi, the fourteenth letter, presumably to avoid offending a certain Chinese public health hero.) And so on to the in memoriam reel of all the mutations that didn’t make the cut. Who could forget the iota variant, first detected in New York City only to be overtaken by the delta? Or the zeta variant, which drove an outbreak in Brazil and fizzled out last summer?
Now we have omicron, and there’s one burning question on everyone’s minds: how hysterically do our elites think we need to react this time around? The answer, according to researchers who have studied the virus, is not very hysterically at all. “Their symptoms were so different and so mild from those I had treated before,” said Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a South African doctor, of omicron patients. Coetzee noted that omicron had so far been detected mostly in men who reported feeling tired for a couple of days. That this makes it medically identical to a hangover may warrant further study.
But the world isn’t run by researchers. It’s run by politicians and health departments, and politicians and health departments have decided that the omicron calls for all the usual mania. Shortly after news broke, British prime minister Boris Johnson imposed a mask mandate on all shops and public transport. Kathy Hochul, the governor of New York, declared a state of emergency and mandated that hospitals limit elective surgeries (!!!). For the crime of uncovering omicron, South Africa was slapped with travel bans by the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union.
There are, of course, valid reasons to worry about omicron. The variant contains a set of sophisticated mutations in its spike protein, which could help it slip past immune systems and even evade vaccines. Those who are elderly and unvaccinated may yet be at risk.
But the question of transmissibility isn’t the only one worth asking here. Another is are we really going to ruin another Christmas over Covid? And what effect will another round of restrictions have on the economy? And a year and a half after “two weeks to flatten the curve,” is there any public trust left to build on? And will we ever get back to the way things were before?
We live under a regime that tends to ignore much of this, that is almost singularly focused on beating Covid. And since Covid refuses to be beaten, the changes instituted by the regime likewise have not gone away. Worse, they’re congealing into habits. I can’t stop pressing elevator buttons with my wrists. One day, decades from now, when booster shots are administered by Bluetooth and Dr. Fauci is serving his seventh term as Temporary Global Arbiter for Public Safety, my children may ask why I press elevator buttons with my wrists. I’ll have to tell them it was one of those nigh-superstitious measures that we took, like wearing masks and putting up with Gretchen Whitmer.
You are all a lost generation, pressing elevator buttons with your wrists. Because what can seem like a small tic ultimately feeds into larger repercussions. As those habits develop at the personal level, they become trends at the societal level. Staying in to stay safe and watch Disney+ has yielded a nation of homebodies, with devastating effects for restaurant and malls. The destruction of brick-and-mortar retail has been accelerated, as customers shop from their phones rather than risk a trip to Target. Children are becoming accustomed to masks, with effects on their cognitive development the likes of which we dare not think about. Our politics has been transformed, as strange new words enter our vocabulary, Karen and covidiot and vax.
For those of us who are wary of such seismic shifts, who remember how the Great Recession accelerated changes we weren’t ready for, the omicron variant is more than just a medical event. It’s a fresh injection of fear into the body politic. It makes the pre-Covid era an even more distant speck in the rear-view mirror.
My Spectator colleague Peter Van Buren has aptly compared the coronavirus to the omnipresent bogey of terrorism in the 2000s, which haunted us for years and changed us forever. Sticking with that analogy, the omicron is akin to another report of jihadist chatter out of the Middle East. It may amount to something, it may not, but it’s guaranteed to fuel our fears, with more hastily begotten disruptions to follow.
The external threat is always dwarfed by the self-harm we inflict to address it. Fortunately there may be a silver lining. Because as that montage of forgotten Greek letters shows, even the most hyped coronavirus variants have often amounted to little. Perhaps this one will be the same. Perhaps omicron will flame out. And then, another four booster shots and nine contradictory guidances from the CDC later, we’ll all be free once again to walk sans Covid past what was once that Friendly’s on the corner.