The variant, named Omicron (the fifteenth letter in the Greek alphabet), was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) by South Africa on November 24th. Unlike its name would suggest, Omicron was the seventh COVID-19 variant of concern—but a pandemic-fatigued global public could be forgiven for thinking it was the twentieth.
Governments across the developed world have pushed vaccination efforts for almost a year, and many of the vaccines were quite successful in warding off serious symptoms in large swathes of populations. Some nations, such as Israel and Norway, even went the extra mile to couple vaccination drives with COVID-passport initiatives. The problem is, however, such strategies depend on individual cooperation, on which governments and institutions must expend a lot of resources to attempt to enforce effectively. Expecting individuals to get jabbed with boosters each time a new variant emerges won’t work—especially when we know the variants aren’t likely to stop any time soon.
So, in the initial panic, governments across the world took precautionary steps. U.S. President Joe Biden acted almost immediately to close America’s borders to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. Further afield, Japan joined Israel and Morocco in barring all foreign travellers, while Australia delayed reopening its borders by two weeks.
Though understandable during times of panic, closing borders every time a new variant is reported naturally puts a dent in the economy. Australia, for instance, which did not reopen its international borders until late December, lost about $36.5 million every day the borders were shut, which equated to about 72,000 jobs, according to The Conversation. From manufacturing to education, border closures also impacted the economy indirectly, with companies delaying investments and cutting jobs as strict travel limits weighed down on sector confidence. Borders aside, fighting COVID-19 in California alone, cost taxpayers at least $12.3 billion since the start of the pandemic. That’s more than the equivalent gross domestic product of the fifty poorest nations in the world combined.
Yet one of the most contentious issues regarding pandemic policy has been the introduction of passport schemes, where people are required to provide proof of sufficient vaccination before entering certain spaces, such as gyms, restaurants, and music venues. Though authorities insist such passports are an attempt to address legitimate issues in a balanced way, much pushback has come from both libertarians and industry advocates alike, claiming it to be a discriminatory and disproportionate initiative.
Further still, the logistics of vaccine passports is a headache few authorities know how to navigate without abrasion. In the United States, the only way to verify your vaccination status is to flash the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) paper card people get after their jabs. Yet reports of fake CDC cards have already surfaced, while issues surrounding the ethics of data privacy and passport adherence among businesses remain ever-present. It’s worth noting digital verification passports through smartphone apps aren't exactly assuaging the fears of those worried about data privacy—it has in many ways compounded them.
Given vaccine passports are turning into a prerequisite for participation in public activities, it could very quickly lead to a license of discrimination. Stephanie Hare, a technology researcher based in London, expressed deep concern about the British “COVID-status certification” program, which the government recently announced. The vaccine certification could punish those who would like it but haven’t been vaccinated due to health issues. It also does nothing to prevent people from gathering in private homes.
Though vaccination remains central to combating today’s pandemic, we must begin focusing on how we live through tomorrow’s variant. Americans, on average, spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, where the concentrations of some pollutants are often two to five times higher than typical outdoor concentrations. So, for any kind of effective strategy against COVID, governments will have to figure out ways to enable individuals to share the same space safely regardless of their vaccination status.
One of the most effective ways we can do this is by reinvigorating a sense of confidence in the air quality of indoor spaces, particularly where people regularly congregate publicly, en masse, and in close proximity. In a survey studying people’s concerns across four European countries regarding indoor air during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than one-third of the respondents were concerned about IAQ (indoor air quality) in their place of work, and more than half said those same concerns impacted their motivation to visit public spaces. Even more participants mentioned their motivation to travel had waned. Public transport and work offices serve as just two examples of scenarios that, if reinitiated without the need for PPE-accessorizing, could inject a hugely significant dose of confidence among the population– one that might even begin chipping away the zeitgeist anxiety of future variants. More importantly, it would serve as a surer way to minimize the spread of future variants because, as an institutional measure, it won't require mass cooperation of individuals, and it will also protect high-risk populations who are unable to get jabbed due to previous complications with the vaccine or other reasons.
More long-term strategies must be set in motion now, that not only address the more immediate need to combat COVID-19 and re-engage the economy, but also address a broader need to improve our health, safety, and productivity. Such a feat would reduce the potency of future viruses on society both physically and mentally.
Too many of our mistakes have come about by short-term thinking, by attempting to put a band-aid over an infection. And it’s understandable—no one government could or would have expected such a tectonic shift in the status quo, nor were they prepared to deal with the protracted fallout.
Furthermore, it’s important that when COVID-19 does eventually leave the center stage of our lives, we don’t go back to casting aside indoor air quality. Poor indoor air quality has had a massively detrimental effect on our health and productivity for years. And the pandemic may be the tide change. “It feels like The Great Awakening,” said Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings programme at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Finally, the world has woken up to the importance of healthy buildings.”
And all it took was a devastating global pandemic.
Written by Boaz Roseman, CEO of A.L. GROUP