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Is Omicron the beginning of the end of the panic?

Amid the ongoing Omicron panic, would it be presumptuous to focus on a possible upside to it all? At the very least it would appear that while the numbers of detected cases are higher, and may even not yet have peaked, that the effects of this Covid-19 variant do not seem as severe.

For the first time since the whole thing began, I know a large number of people who have tested positive for Covid, among them one member of the household. The rest of us appear to have escaped unscathed. None of those who did have it were particularly ill and the general verdict was that it was like a bad hangover or the old flu that used to be about before it was gazzumped in the viral world.

All of that, however, is both anecdotal and subjective. Of more weight is the fact that some of those involving in monitoring the outbreaks are forming the opinion that not only are the consequences of contracting Omicron not as serious as other variants, but that its rapid spread and prevalence may be a sign that we are approaching the end of the whole thing.

One such voice is Tyra Grove Krause, one of Denmark’s leading epidemiologists who in an interview with Danish TV on Sunday stated with confidence that not only is the medical impact including the numbers of people requiring hospitalisation dramatically lower than was being forecast prior to Christmas, but that normality may return within the next two months.

You may be thinking to yourself, “What kind of public health official is she now, not to be frightening the Bejaysus out of people,” but there you go. My sister who lives in Copenhagen – and who has, along with her husband and daughter, tested positive – tells me that there is nothing like the panic that was attempted to be engendered here and that was evidenced in some of the public reaction prior to Christmas. Indeed, she thought it quite amusing to read in the Irish media that Denmark was being cited as one of the reasons why people here ought to be scared.

The state broadcaster, which ran several of those stories in the days before Christmas, seems to have missed this latest news from Denmark. It chose instead to tell people that hospitalisations in Australia had risen. They failed to point out, of course, that this news was hardly testament to the pretty draconian measures that have been deployed in that country to “Stop Covid.”

Anyway, all we can do is hope that the optimism of Denmark’s public health officials is better grounded than the seemingly relentless doom of our own.

The reason for the optimism of Dr. Krause and others who exist beyond the NPHET curtain is their belief that the wider spread of infection coupled with the much milder health impacts is part of the transformation of Covid-19 into an endemic similar to other viral infections. Once that takes place, and assuming that no more virulent strain occurs, that this will allow it to be treated in the same way as the winter flu for example.

The key to all of this of course is the hope and the belief that Omicron will at last bring about the sort of herd immunity that was once regarded as being essential to overcoming the current coronavirus.

In fact, Irish immunologist Professor Kingston Mills did say this week that a “big positive” of so many people getting infected by Omicron was that people would have “very good immunity from prior infection.”

Another leading Danish health official, Lars Ostergaard of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Aarhus University Hospital, expressed the hope that while he did not think “we will ever wave goodbye to the corona,” that “we want such a good immunity in the population – partly because of new vaccines, partly because people have been infected – that we can handle it as another of the infections that come especially in the winter months.”

Even the chief of the World Health Organisation Tedro Adhanom Ghebreyesus whose chums have not exactly covered themselves in glory through all of this, has begun to sound a bit cheerier. In his New Year statement Ghebreyesus expressed the wish that 2022 will bring an end to the “nightmare,” although he felt obliged to link this to putting an “end to inequality.”

For those of you of an historical bent, there is some comfort perhaps to be gained too from the manner in which the Spanish Flu that mysteriously arrived in the Spring of 1918 had disappeared by Summer 1919 when the last of those infected had died or had become immune. The death toll from that virus was much greater with tens of millions of victims with some estimates of up to 3% of the population of the world having died from the flu.

That epidemic peaked in October 1918 and by mid-November the number of deaths in most European and north American cities had fallen drastically. In Ireland there were 800,000 cases and 23,000 deaths in the six months after the flu arrived in July 1918. The death toll was no doubt greatly enhanced by poor living conditions and weaker immune systems especially in the cities and large towns where many people lived in overcrowded insanitary rooms.

And yet this was also a time of revolutionary ferment in Ireland and the elections of December 1918 brought about an elected majority of Irish MPs who were committed to establishing an independent Republic.

Perhaps we can double down on our optimism regarding an exit from the Covid panic, by hoping that we might as a people experience some similar type of national re-awakening in the aftermath of the past two years which have perhaps not brought out the best in many of us.

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