The initial reaction from Dr. Anthony Fauci to the emergence of a new strain of the coronavirus pandemic elicited a collective scream of frustration.
When ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos asked him whether the Omicron version of COVID would prompt a return to devastating lockdowns, President Biden’s chief medical adviser kept his options open, saying, “It’s really too early to say.”
Fortunately, within a day, the administration changed its tune. When Biden spoke about the Omicron variant on Monday, the president said that when he unveils a new “detailed strategy” for dealing with the disease, it will focus on vaccinations, boosters and testing and “not shutdowns or lockdowns.”
He’d better keep his word about that, and make sure fearmonger-in-chief Fauci remembers it. The American people are weary from more than 20 months of heavy-handed and often ineffective measures that were supposed to keep them safe. The shutting down of ordinary life and commerce, as well as the schools, didn’t curtail the death toll — which on Biden’s watch has exceeded that of Trump — or prevent the virus from spreading and mutating.
The first duty of any government is to protect its citizens, but you don’t have to be a libertarian absolutist to have noticed that COVID has been a gift that keeps on giving when it comes to the desire of federal, state and local governments to seize more power to deal with an emergency that never seems to end.
While cases of COVID-19 have fluctuated over the past two years, the number of deaths has fallen tremendously in places where vaccination rates are high. As this chart of New York City shows, deaths increased along with COVID cases in the summer of 2020. Yet a year later, even as cases spiked, the number of deaths didn’t rise as much. Today, more than 85 percent of adults in the city are vaccinated and the number of deaths over a seven-day average since June has rarely risen above 20, with multiple weeks of no deaths. When Omicron comes to the United States, the number of new cases won’t matter as much as hospitalizations and deaths — particularly since South African medical officials say symptoms are usually mild.
NY Post composite
Part of the problem is that authorities are focusing almost exclusively on “cases” — the rate of reported positive COVID tests — rather than on the rate of hospitalizations or, even more importantly, on the death rate from COVID.
Nothing can stop a virus from spreading, but in places like New York City, where vaccination rates are high — approximately 85 percent of adults have had at least one dose — the death rates have dropped even as infections spike or decrease. To even contemplate the possibility of lockdowns based on cases rather than hospitalizations or death rates is irresponsible.
The reason it’s called Omicron is that it’s the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. Health officials have already gone through quite a few letters, although they skipped the 13th letter. “nu.” because it sounds like the English word “new.” The 14th letter, “xi,” was skipped so as not to remind us of the despotic leader of the country that gave the world COVID. The virus will continue to mutate through the alphabet, but if it follows the typical pattern, the variants will become easier to catch but much less deadly.
Anthony Fauci speaks alongside President Joe Biden as he delivers remarks on the Omicron COVID-19 variant on November 29, 2021.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Instead of using this as an excuse for more authoritarian responses to the pandemic, our leaders need to start preparing Americans to learn to live with a problem that won’t go away but probably can be managed.
If many of us are cynical about Omicron — and the South African doctor who first raised alarms about the new strain has stated that its symptoms are “unusual but mild” — it’s because we know that there is nothing temporary about government measures that are supposed to protect us from COVID.
In March of 2020, we were told extreme measures would merely last “two weeks to flatten the curve” of reported cases and hospitalizations, but we saw them drag on for months only to be replaced by a complex, illogical and often contradictory maze of regulations about social distancing and masks. We also noticed that the rules enforced by authorities when it came to ordinary citizens were often flouted by the politicians who promulgated them, something that continues to this day, with Biden ignoring mask mandates that he demands others obey.
Joe Biden said that when he unveils a new “detailed strategy,” it will focus on vaccinations, boosters and testing and “not shutdowns or lockdowns.”
AP Photo/LM Otero
Most importantly, the lockdowns and school closures clearly did more harm than good. While they may have temporarily checked the spread of the virus, they also inflicted massive economic misery on the poor and the working classes, caused many with other health issues to neglect treatment, and imposed crushing isolation on the vulnerable. They also stole more than a year of vital education and development from our children while teaching them to fear contact with other people, the cost of which will only be fully understood in the future.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has created an appetite for the sort of measures that can seem sensible to those who have become COVID fear addicts. But what we need from Biden and Fauci is less drama and more common sense. Encouraging vaccinations and booster shots is sensible. Whether Omicron is a serious problem or the health-care equivalent of a hurricane that doesn’t make landfall, the message they need to hear from Americans is that we will never again be cowed into accepting draconian abridgements of our freedom that won’t save us from disease but will badly hurt us in so many other ways.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in- chief of JNS.org.Internet Explorer Channel Network