Although the Omicron variant of COVID-19 began to surge leading up to the holiday season, only 23% percent of Americans indicated they “were likely to cancel their holiday plans.” First identified in South Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified and labeled this fifth COVID-19 variant as a “variant of concern” as it has now become the predominant variant in active cases and in hospitalized patients in the United States. As we enter into the third year of the pandemic and another wave of strict restrictions begin to roll out, public apathy to follow health measures poses a challenge to the ability of governments to control Omicron’s spread. 

Vaccines and Hospitalizations

While public health authorities claim that it is unclear whether Omicron causes more severe symptoms and complications than other variants, those who are fully vaccinated and contract the virus “appear to be well protected from serious illness.” The symptoms of Omicron include a “runny nose, sore throat, and nasal congestion,” similar to those commonly cited with earlier variants of COVID-19, though a serious cough and high fever appear to be less common symptoms with the current variant. 

However, Omicron holds the potential to greatly impact healthcare systems as COVID-19 did in its previous waves. Some countries have even imposed restrictions as a result, including Singapore, which has based its restrictions on the number of Omicron-related hospitalizations rather than active cases. Advocates of this method are encouraging the US to do the same to avoid another health crisis while balancing restrictions that do not cause an uproar from the public. 

The growing problem of the variant has made vaccines a more important matter. In fact, some experts stated that the virus is able to transform into different variants because of the “absence of adequate [vaccination] levels.”

Lockdowns and Restrictions 

A stark division on the issue of the virus and the politicization of its subsequently-imposed measures have made the matter one of great contention. Now, it requires a cooperative, cohesive effort in order to tackle the variant with proper measures. However, the world is beginning to see the resurgence of public health measures implemented in the spring and summer of 2020, during the first peaks of COVID-19, with divided and varying responses from nations around the globe. 

Although the European Commission advised against a travel ban on South Africa as it has been found to be “inefficient” in the circumstances, many European countries rejected this and have maintained their ban on travel from South Africa, where Omicron was first identified. The WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recognizes South Africa for its role in identifying and reporting the Omicron variant, and discourages the penalizing of the nation through travel bans, stating: “The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa.” 

Israel was the first country to ban travel in an effort to get Omicron under control, including the US and Canada in the ban, and are going as far as to offer a fourth vaccine dose “to health workers and people older than 60.” The United Kingdom has also now moved to mandate masks indoors, has taken a step forward in its vaccine booster shot program, and is requiring vaccine passports for large indoor venues, despite previously remaining resistant to restrictions throughout the pandemic. 

China has maintained its “zero-COVID” policy as it prepares to host the Winter Olympics in early February. As the last country to go forth with this approach, its measures have included “mass testing, snap lockdowns, and extensive quarantines” in order to control the emergence of COVID-19 variants. With plans to ban “overseas spectators” and maintain socially isolated bubbles for the athletes, this may be challenging considering the lack of existing natural immunity among its population, as well as the country’s overreliance on the Sinovac vaccine that experts predict will be ineffective against Omicron.

Pandemic Fatigue: Public Apathy and Desensitization 

The pandemic is now taking on its third year of unstable and unpredictable public health measures. While physical health has been at the forefront of the world’s concerns, “mental and social wellbeing” are now being emphasized as part of the definition of health. 

These volatile conditions have led to a new phenomenon called “pandemic fatigue,” which refers to the “weariness” people experience in a seemingly never-ending cycle of COVID-19 restrictions and isolation. According to the WHO, pandemic fatigue “poses a serious threat to efforts to control the spread of the virus,” as people become more apathetic and apprehensive about abiding by socially isolating measures. 

The fear that was once felt by the global population, following the emergence of an unknown, easily-transmittable, and hard-to-treat virus, is now declining in a collective “systematic desensitization.” The constant circulation of information is now “leading [people] to let down their guard, relax their restrictions and masking habits or even refuse potentially life-saving vaccines.” 

When the pandemic started, the international public was relatively quick to react to this unknown and foreign virus that posed a serious threat. However, the fear that once propelled people to socially isolate, stock up on groceries and toilet paper, and await their first vaccine dose is now less effective in requiring people to follow further COVID-19 measures, such as taking their second dose and now repeating those strict restrictions with the Omicron variant. 

When asked about holiday plans, 23% of surveyed people said that they would comply with public health orders and cancel their plans. However, 28% agreed to not gather with others outside of their own households. When it comes to travel plans this holiday season, TSA data showed that there was no decline in flight averages for the week of Christmas.

Looking Forward 

According to the UN, only 0.6% of the global COVID-19 vaccine supply was secured by low-income nations, while 80% was secured by G20 countries. Dr. Tedros explains that “vaccine inequity, among other challenges, has facilitated the appearance of new highly mutated variants such as Omicron.” As the world’s leaders move forward with tackling the Omicron variant, the matter of vaccines comes to the forefront of this issue, in which “no country can vaccinate its way out of the pandemic alone” and a global effort should be made to defeat this virus. 

However, at the regional level, pandemic fatigue is a more apparent issue in controlling Omicron. The public has largely become desensitized to the fear that the virus had once established in many, as it now takes on its fifth variant. Thus, people have not only been apprehensive about a new wave of strict restrictions but also have relaxed their own personal boundaries with the virus, especially around the holiday season. 

As the extent to which restrictions should be imposed is a contested topic and the issuing of travel bans is being advised against, public health measures have been approached much more apathetically with Omicron than has been seen previously with the virus. This pandemic fatigue, along with the split and varied responses seen around the globe, is being reflected in the ability to control the spread of Omicron, as the US and UK see record-high COVID-19 case numbers. 

Edited by Bethlehem Samson and Chase Kelliher

Lara Yacoub

Lara is originally half-Syrian and half-Egyptian, but grew up in Mexico City and Calgary, AB. She moved to Vancouver in 2019 to complete a B.A. in International Relations at the University of British Columbia....