Whole-of-world approach crucial to overcome Covid-19

IN the seven weeks since Omicron was first reported in South Africa on November 24, the Covid-19 variant has spread rapidly across the globe in what World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has described as a “tsunami of cases” that are overwhelming health systems.

“Just like previous variants, Omicron is hospitalising people and it is killing people,” Tedros said at a press conference on January 6.

The pandemic is far from over. The week ending January 2 saw the highest number of reported cases since the pandemic’s start, according to the WHO, and record new infections are being logged in countries from Argentina to Israel each day.

Here are some stark facts to demonstrate how rapidly Omicron has struck:

In the last week of 2021, one in 15 people in England were infected, rising to one in 10 in London, according to the Office of National Statistics. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it the “fastest growth in Covid cases that we have ever known”;

The number of people in London hospitals with Covid-19 almost quadrupled in a month, from 1,100 in early December to 4,000 in early January, the BBC reported. It said 200 military members were deployed to help London hospitals hit by staff shortages; and

In Australia, confirmed Covid-19 infections have passed one million, more than half of them occurring last week, according to Reuters.

Preliminary studies show there is a reduced risk of hospitalisation from the Omicron variant compared with Delta, along with a reduced risk of severity of symptoms in both young and old people.

But uncertainties remain. A true picture of what Omicron is all about can only be gleaned from more research and studies in the coming weeks and months.

It is premature to say Omicron is less severe or milder than the Delta variant, hence the WHO warning against categorising the variant as mild.

Since 2020, Covid-19 has affected almost every country and infected more than 50 million people around the world. It has governments operating in a context of radical uncertainty and facing difficult trade-offs given the health, economic and social challenges it raises.

The irony of it all is that the anti-vax movement has managed, without the support of government infrastructure or multilateralism, to forge unity all over the world among its adherents while recruiting more people to its fold, thus thwarting efforts to eradicate the virus.

It doesn’t help that the start of the pandemic coincided with declining support for multilateralism and an ongoing surge in nationalism that was championed by the Trump administration, resulting in each country managing the pandemic crisis in a manner that is parochial and oblivious to what is going on in other nations.

A Chinese wall is the term used in the business world as a praiseworthy concept of a virtual barrier intended to block the exchange of information between departments if it might result in business activities that are ethically or legally questionable.

But in managing a pandemic crisis of epic proportions like Covid-19, this wall must be demolished in the interest of saving humankind.

An example of a Chinese wall was when almost all countries banned the entry of people from South Africa and Botswana after the two governments had in all transparency reported the emergence of Omicron on their shores.

Yes, a ban is needed to prevent the spread of Omicron but what about the economic fallout that these countries will face?

This will only encourage countries not to report new strains because not only is there no incentive to do so, they will be punished for doing so.

What is needed in this case is international cooperation for a multilateral fund to be created to assist the countries while the ban is enforced.

Aid should flow to the two countries from all over the world as it would if they had been stricken by a disaster such as an earthquake or a tsunami.

Aid could also take the form of experts and genome sequencing facilities to better and more quickly understand the new variant that is putting human lives at risk.

Another area where a Chinese wall needs to be demolished is global vaccine equity, which is championed by the WHO.

The target is for 70% of the world population to be fully vaccinated by July to end the acute phase of the pandemic.

Based on the current rate of vaccine rollout, 109 countries will miss the target.

WHO chief Tedros has warned that vaccine inequity across the globe risks prolonging the pandemic. “Booster after booster in a small number of countries will not end a pandemic while billions remain completely unprotected.”

He has a point there because if world leaders have a careless attitude to the relatively huge unvaccinated people outside their country, it will be these outside people that may spread the virus into their country once they are ready to open up their borders.

Although a study from Imperial College London suggests the best protection comes from three Covid-19 vaccine shots, it is not sustainable to administer a booster every three to six months.

So instead of a fourth dose, the government should ensure that 90% of the adult population in Malaysia will get a third jab and, via the carrot-and-stick approach, convince the unvaccinated to get their first.

Also instead of a fourth dose, an annual dose should become routine even if Omicron has been brought under control in case a new variant emerges.

As Malaysia introduced the third dose last October, it should start giving the first annual shots starting the next October, beginning with those who completed their third dose last October.

Evidence worldwide have shown it is the unvaccinated that make up the majority of deaths in many countries.

In Singapore for instance, unvaccinated individuals accounted for 70% of the republic’s Covid-19 deaths last year – 555 out of 802 Covid-19 deaths.

According to Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unvaccinated people are about six times more likely to test positive than vaccinated people, nine times more likely to be hospitalised, and 14 times more likely to die from Covid-related complications.

This has prompted President Joe Biden on January 4 to characterise the surge in Delta and Omicron as “a pandemic of the unvaccinated” during a meeting on Covid-19.

Malaysia should release data on the number of Covid-19 deaths among the unvaccinated so as to open the eyes of those who stubbornly refuse to vaccinate and their supporters so that they will then realise not only the lurking danger of their death but also the deaths of people they may infect.

Thus, Covid-19 has emphasised the importance of international cooperation, from sharing health data to solving global supply chain issues, and increasing support for multilateralism. Local action and inaction can affect global health.

This is what the whole-of-world approach is all about. It’s similar to the whole-of-government or whole-of-society approach but of a different magnitude. – January 15, 2022.

* Jamari Mohtar reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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