Omicron anxieties pale in the wake of Kentucky tragedy

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06.05 in the morning. All seems black. The night sky outside my Hong Kong Bureau that looks over Nim Shue Wan village, neighbour to Discovery Bay; the steaming coffee (first of several) in front of me; and most of the global headlines which I peruse as part of my regular early morning routine.

The worst, or at least most dramatic, of those headlines come invariably from the UK (‘One million jabs a day in race to avoid new year lockdown’ – The Daily Telegraph; OMIGAWD! New drive to beat ‘tidal wave’ of Omicron bug – The Sun; COVID-19: Omicron currently infecting 200,000 a day –  as COVID passport changes announced – Sky News) but maybe that is because the country is led by perhaps the greatest bunch of oafs in recent political history. Correction, delete the ‘recent’.

The BBC sums up the UK media landscape. Click on the image to read.

In the US, CNN, supposedly the balance to the rabid right wing extremity of Fox News, seems to have mislaid its sense of perspective. Its lead story as I write is titled, ‘Why hasn’t China approved Western mRNA vaccines?’, followed by the following teaser, ‘Beijing’s homegrown vaccines are less effective. Yet even with the new challenge of Omicron, it’s not clear if officials will ever sign off on Western jabs.’

At one point reporters Nectar Gan and Steve George write: However, five months later [i.e. since BioNTech’s mRNA Covid-19 vaccine was reported to have passed an expert review by Chinese regulators and was in the administration review stage -Ed] there is still no word from Chinese officials on when – or whether – the vaccine will ever be approved, even as the newly emerged Omicron variant poses a fresh challenge to China’s zero-Covid strategy – and its less effective domestic vaccines.

And then this: The limited protection provided by Chinese vaccines is far from enough to satisfy China’s ambitious goal of keeping Covid infection at zero within its borders. Over the past few months, authorities have resorted to increasingly stringent measures to curb local outbreaks – often at great economic cost and disruption to daily lives.

But infections have continued to flare up. Last week, more than 130 cases were reported in eastern Zhejiang province, home to the country’s key manufacturing and export hubs. And several local authorities across China have called for residents not to travel home for the Lunar Chinese New Year to reduce the spread of the virus.

If that is your lead story to the world on 1) a day that huge swathes of the state of Kentucky lie destroyed by the weekend’s cataclysmic tornadoes with 74 dead and at least 109 missing and 2) when the USA has just reported 818,208 new daily COVID-19 cases (the highest in the world, ahead of the UK and South Africa) and 253 new deaths [Source: Worldometer), then you have lost your way.

On that same, constantly updated Worldometer league, China ranks 113th for total case numbers, reported just 75 new daily cases and NO new deaths. In fact the official count from the National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China for the past five days (working backwards) is 80, 49, 51, 37 and 60. Number of deaths? Zero.

Balance matters.

Here in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post reports that Britain is set to be added to the Special Administrative Region’s list of highest-risk countries. If verified, that means arriving passengers from the UK will have to spend one week in Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre, and then 14 days in hotel quarantine. The anticipated tightening comes as health authorities confirmed two more Omicron variant cases, both involving passengers who arrived from the UK. Hong Kong remains mercifully free of local transmission of Omicron or any other variant.

If the South China Morning Post report is confirmed, Britain will join the USA as the only non-African countries in the Group A, high-risk category, under which arrivals face the city’s toughest quarantine measures. Click on the image to read the full report.

Chinese state-controlled media Global Times reported yesterday that China’s northern city of Tianjin reported an Omicron variant infection from an overseas arrival, the first such case in the Mainland.

Importantly, though, the title also reported that China’s first home-developed anti-COVID-19 drug based on an ‘antibody cocktail therapy’ has just been approved for public use. Studies showed that the drug could retain neutralising activity against numerous variants including Omicron [my italics].

Click on the image to read the Global Times report

“We do not need to be afraid of Omicron with the implementation of the dynamic zero-case policy and strictly observing the precise prevention and control measures,” said Zhong Nanshan, China’s top respiratory expert, in the report.

We need to be hearing these things. We need more analysis of exactly how dangerous (as opposed to infectious) Omicron is. I shall say it again, balance matters.

Outside, the night sky has turned into a grey and cloudy morning, a brisk and chilly wind sending gentle ripples over the bay. My black coffee having done its job has been replaced by white. The darkness that dominates world headlines over the pandemic is nothing compared to the despair of catastrophe and loss in the deep south of America. We must strive to retain perspective, insist on it in fact.

Similarly for the travel retail industry, while we should not underplay the impact of Omicron’s emergence, which has effectively represented a giant stride backwards for all those recent encouraging steps forward, nor should we believe that we are somehow plunging back into the darkest days of early 2020. The world, like the sky outside my window, is overcast not black.