KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) — Perhaps Chinese dictator Xi Jinping (習近平) missed a trick when he instructed the World Health Organization to skip the Greek letter Xi from its COVID-19 variant categorizations.
It is still early, but the Omicron variant, as it was eventually monikered, looks increasingly likely to be the world’s ticket out of the pandemic that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) thrust upon it at the start of 2020.
Thank God the CCP’s propagandists are too busy making risible James Bond parodies to spot a real opportunity for positive publicity when it rears its head.
Here in Taiwan, the narrative around Omicron continues to be largely the same as with previous variants. Media hysteria is generating panic, and people who are testing positive for the new strain, such as those in the Taoyuan Airport cluster, are being attacked publicly for putting Taiwanese society at risk.
These attacks are grossly unfair. Almost everyone who has tested positive for Omicron has had mild or no symptoms, and it is quite understandable that they didn’t immediately leap to the conclusion that they were positive.
Far from being the dangerous new threat most of our media likes to portray it as, Taiwan now needs to look upon Omicron as an opportunity to move out of its self-imposed isolation, to shift away from the zero-COVID policy it has followed so far, and return life back to normal.
The evidence that this is the correct approach is already abundantly clear in the data about Omicron from other countries.
Firstly, now that Omicron is in Taiwan, it is here to stay. This is by far the most contagious COVID-19 variant we have seen so far, and nothing we do now is likely to stop its spread.
Data from rapidly increased infection rates in South Africa (where the variant first emerged), the U.K., France, and other countries show this all too clearly. It would be naïve to think that Taiwan will be any different.
Furthermore, Omicron’s incubation period appears to be shorter. One study of an outbreak following a Christmas party in Norway found the average period of incubation was just three days, compared with six to 14 for previous variants.
This shortened incubation will make it far harder for Taiwan’s impressive test and trace system and will help the variant spread.
Restrictive measures don’t appear to have a huge impact either. France has imposed stringent restrictions over the holiday period, but it was still recording more than 300,000 confirmed cases a day at the time of writing.
Yet in England, where far fewer restrictions have been imposed, the figure has remained under 200,000.
This all sounds pretty gloomy. But actually, it is good news. While the Omicron variant is far more transmissible, it is also less severe than previous variants.
Studies on Omicron in England have found, on average, a 20-25% reduced risk of hospitalization and an approximately 40-45% reduced risk of hospitalization resulting in a stay of one night or longer.
The British Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has confirmed that the risk of hospital admission with Omicron is around a third that of Delta. In addition, it has pretty much wiped out the more dangerous variant.
There has been a significant drop in the number of patients needing ventilation while in hospital as well. The country that has had Omicron longest, South Africa, has reported similar findings.
Perhaps the most crucial figure of all is the death rate from the Omicron variant, and this too is way down.
In South Africa, the death rate is estimated to be just a quarter of those of previous outbreaks. In the U.K., COVID-19 data are not currently being broken up into different variants, but despite the spike in recorded cases, the death rate from COVID has continued to tumble.
One key factor in the handling of Omicron appears to be vaccination rates and particularly booster shots. Some reports have suggested that unvaccinated people are up to eight times more likely to be hospitalized by Omicron compared to those who have received three doses.
Taiwan is now in a pretty good place on the vaccination front, but it could be better.
Just over 80% of eligible people have received the first dose, while the second-dose rate is a touch over 70%. However, the number who have received a third is still under 1%, and this needs to be a main focus now for the CDC.
A growing number of experts now agree that Omicron is good news and likely to be the way out of the pandemic and back to normality. A weaker variant is exactly how the Spanish Flu, which swept across the world between 1918 and 1920, eventually came to an end.
History appears to be repeating itself, and Taiwan needs to be ready to embrace this new reality as quickly and efficiently as it dealt with the previous one.
Attempting to keep Omicron out altogether is just not a realistic approach anymore. We need to move beyond our obsession with case numbers and focus instead on ensuring that we are doing all we can to minimize the number of people being hospitalized.
But we also have to accept that some people are going to get sick from Omicron and some are going to die. Viruses do kill people — that’s just a fact of life.
We have the tools to minimize this now — vaccines — and we need to use them. It's time for a new push to get as many Taiwanese as are willing vaccinated with three shots of an effective COVID-19 vaccine.
Now is the moment to make the choice to stop hiding away and embrace the opportunities presented by a variant that will give most people nothing more than a runny nose and sore throat.
It is time to stop being scared of COVID and learn to live with it as we have every other virus in the world. It is time to embrace the opportunity of Omicron and return Taiwan to normal.