They may both be Greek but Omicron is not Armageddon

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

Now I sit down on the sofa and I watch the evening news
There’s a half a dozen tragedies from which to pick and choose
The baby that was missing was found in a ditch today
And there’s bombs a-flying and people dying not so far away
I’ll take a beer from the ‘frigerator and go sit out in the yard
And with a cold one in my hand I’m gonna bite down and swallow hard
Because I’m older now and I’ve got no time to cry
– No Time to Cry, Iris DeMent

Write a story about growing travel retail industry optimism and you can be made to look pretty stupid pretty quickly. Within a day so of my last, perhaps rose-tinted blog ‘Flying with butterfly wings towards better times’, the travel and stock markets were reeling from reports of a new, supposedly much more infectious, possibly more vaccine-resistant variant of COVID-19 initially given its scientific moniker of B.1.1.529 but since renamed with the Greek letter Omicron.

I’m not sure what the beautiful Greek language did to deserve a series of coronavirus variants of concern (VOC) besmirching it (Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta have all attained VOC status, which frankly sounds more like a French wine classification – more of that in a moment). Whatever the reason, it’s likely that the term Omicron will be uttered throughout the non-Greek world more often in the next three months than it has been over the past three centuries.

Poor Omicron. It is actually the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet but only the fourth to enjoy VOC ranking, which in French wine terms makes it a Grand Cru I suppose. After Delta come Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, Iota, Kappa, Lambda, Mu, Nu and Xi. In fact it wasn’t a case of queue jumping as Epsilon (first detected in California in late 2020); Zeta (Brazil 2020); Eta (about two dozen countries); Iota (New York late 2020); Kappa (India); Lambda (Peru December 2020); and Mu (Colombia) have all enjoyed moments of fleeting fame. However, none made it beyond lowly Variant of Interest (VAI) status, a kind of COVID-themed Vin de Pays.

Of those, Epsilon and Zeta have lost their ranking altogether; while Eta, Iota and Kappa have now been demoted to Vin de Table… sorry, Variants under Monitoring. Lambda and Mu retain Vin de Pays status.

I used the terms supposedly and possibly with deliberate emphasis earlier in describing the fears surrounding Omicron. They are important qualifications. Remember, the variant was only notified to the World Health Organization (WHO) by the South Africa authorities on 24 November. That, as I write, is just four days ago. And yet the global travel industry has been thrown once more into turmoil as governments have raced to impose new restrictions on travel from various southern African countries and the world’s media has reacted as if Armageddon is nigh. Israel has gone so far as to ban foreigners from entering the country for 14 days, effective tonight.

Less than three months ago the Mu variant had alarmists out in their droves

Caution is understandable, in fact correct, but hysteria is a dangerous emotion. Balance is needed but is in painfully short supply. It is worth noting that of Omicron’s fellow travellers, as it were, several of those variants that have since fallen into obscurity prompted immense concern in their early days.

Mu, for example, attracted headlines suggesting it was a doomsday variant (a Bordeaux Premier Cru to Delta’s Deuxièmes Crus). Yet within weeks the respected US medical title WebMD was headlining a story ‘COVID Variant Mu Made a Splash, Disappeared Without a Peep.’

Oh that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson would do the same. Despite new COVID cases in the UK currently running at around 50,000 a day, it took the emergence of Omicron to prompt him and his political cronies to reintroduce compulsory face mask wearing on public transport and in shops. They won’t be required in hospitality venues, however, as presumably people hold their breath in between drinks. How stupid can a government be?

UK tabloid media title Daily Star lays on a large dose of hysteria

Everyone entering the UK, however, must now take a compulsory COVID PCR test on the second day after arrival and self-isolate until they are confirmed negative, a move described as a “huge blow” for the travel industry by trade association ABTA. “These changes will add cost to people’s holidays which will undoubtedly impact consumer demand and hold back the industry’s recovery, so it’s vital that this decision is kept under careful review and restrictions are lifted promptly if it becomes clear there is not a risk to the UK vaccination programme,” ABTA said.

Well put. Governments must act as quickly to remove restrictions (once it is clear they are unnecessary) as they are to impose them or else the travel sector will simply reel from crackdown to crackdown and consumer confidence will continue to have all the stability of quicksand.

Global Times brings some balance to the evolving Omicron situation. Click on the image to read the full article.

We also need voices of reason to be heard. The WHO has warned governments against hastily imposing travel restrictions, saying they should look to a “risk-based and scientific approach”. Not much evidence of that over recent days in the race to impose travel bans. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa today slammed the international reaction, arguing that there was no scientific basis to underpin the bans and that southern African nations were being unfairly discriminated against.

A salient headline from The Straits Times in Singapore. Click on the image to read the full article.

He also argued that the bans would be ineffective in preventing the spread of Omicron. “The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic,” Ramaphosa said.

Listen to this from Global Times, the Chinese state media that has provided such outstanding coverage of the pandemic since its initial emergence in Wuhan: Chinese experts believe there is no need to panic as the large number of mutations does not necessarily indicate high infectivity, and China, with a strict and experienced epidemic prevention and control system, is able to protect domestic residents from the new variant. 

“Much information about the variant remains unclear, such as how many places it has spread to, how many serious cases it causes or its fatality, so there is no need to be worried at the moment,” a Beijing-based immunologist told Global Times.

Those are notable comments coming from a country that has taken such a rigorous approach to the pandemic (China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention website published a report last week noting that if the US-style coronavirus prevention & control method was adopted by China, there would be 630,000 daily infections in the country).

Omicron is a variant of concern, yes. Of concern to the WHO, to governments, to all of us. But it is not Armageddon (also a Greek term, albeit derived from the Hebrew Har Megiddon). Nor was Delta nor Mu nor will be any of the other variants that inevitably emerge while much of the world remains shamefully unvaccinated.

According to travel services specialist Collinson, 71% of vaccines distributed are concentrated in just ten countries and less than 4% of people are fully vaccinated in Africa, the continent at the heart of the latest scare.

Think about those damning statistics. Ten countries. 71%. President Ramaphosa called the Omicron variant a wake-up call for the world regarding vaccine inequality. Until everyone is vaccinated, more variants are inevitable, he said. The phrase “No-one is safe until we are all safe” has been bandied around endlessly since the early days of the vaccine roll-outs. How much has been done about it? All of us in the travel industry need to help change that or our sector will continue to be kicked from pillar to post.

More on that subject soon. Watch this space.

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