Oh My! Omicron is here, what’s next?



The writing was already on the wall. The Christmas holiday threatened to trigger a covid surge at the start of the new year. More people will get sick and unable to go back to work after the season’s festivities. More COVID-19 variants may appear, with warning signs and advisories, posted, “See, I told you so!” litanies on messenger and FB. Flu-like symptoms of COVID-19 have been a normal occurrence even before and more so when the WHO declared a global pandemic in March 2020.


So, what is the difference between then and now? Although the Delta remains dominant, the latest COVID-19 variant, Omicron, is sending the LGUs in the National Capital Region, the country’s business and employment centers, in near panic. Manila is the first to respond to revive and open up all their old and new hospitals to Covid use, alongside Taguig and other LGUs. In the new crisis other agencies went into action to accommodate the increasing number of patients needing hospital care and medicines. The national government is now scrambling to lock down borders to foreign visitors including those coming from South Africa where the variant was first reported.


Super Typhoon Odette came with a big bang five days before Christmas and went immediately away, leaving behind multi-billion-peso damage to lives and property across the country. But the Omicron, with its full might and power, came like a giant wave triggering fresh fears of another surge. It forced some presidential candidates to suspend their campaign sorties, political gatherings, and multi-colored bandwagon caravans. Some shut their campaign headquarters to disinfect and quarantine most of their staff found virus-positive. As a result, everyone now braces for stricter and more conscious compliance of health protocols when, in the first place, we should not have let our guard down.


It all came at a quick pace. Just a month ago the OCTA Research Group echoed reports from the Inter Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), and the health department that most high-risk areas were now low-risk. This was a signal for people to go on merry-making for the long holiday. Health protocols were eased and millions of people stepped out in droves many of them taking inter-province trips. All of a sudden, with this bit of heaven-sent not-Fake-news, heaven let loose, or almost. Families with young kids and babies in tow on their cribs swarmed the malls, cheering the balloons and mascots along the way. Every seat at a favorite fastfood chain was filled up without the usual X and partition in-between anymore. There was an overflowing of junk food and drinks around. Our neighborhood took to Karaoke singing until the wee hours of the morning. Every home with blue, red, pink, white, and gold Christmas Stars welcomed long-lost relatives and friends missed in the past two years, complete with beso beso and hugs. Elsewhere, the corruption-marred Pharmally scandal of substandard and expensive faceshields suddenly became a case solved: Guilty!


How can we not enjoy the physical merrymaking with our loved ones, a tradition that this unwelcome COVID-19 visitor deprived us for two years now? Abroad, some of my equally gregarious high school batchmates boasted about not wearing facemasks anymore in their adopted countries of residence to enjoy the freedom of being fully vaccinated and boosted. From where I am, here in Naga, the E-Salvar ID card (sometimes used, often not), the Vaccination card, the required facemasks, and other health protocols are assumed to become part of the new culture of one’s daily lifestyle. Even when sleeping, I even use a face mask dabbed with my favorite E-Sense essential oils.


The health protocol of the Pandemic is now part of our culture, never to go away. We forgot that even a small gathering could stir an outbreak! Who cares? The national government already claims a successful three-day massive vaccination drive across the country with more than 15M inoculated for covid protection. Weren’t we told that this is all part of the preparation for face-to-face classes, back to new normal work, economic recovery?


With a relative relaxation of rules, friends from the SMEs and the tourism industry in Bicol -both government and private sector – had shared with me their desire to help reboot the local tourism industry to bring out the best of the natural resources and products made in their localities, even with facemasks on. Did you hear about the refurbished world-class Manila Zoo’s reopening with a soft launch on Rizal Day, before the New Year? I promised my son, his wife, and our six-year-old apo in the UAE, who had planned to come home this year, to include the Manila Zoo part of the itinerary.


But with the Omicron, how can this family enjoyment now be a reality? All of a sudden, the plans all crumbled. From South Africa to the US, Europe, and Asia, the COVID-19 Omicron variant has arrived. It is now at the doorsteps of Bicol. Suddenly, the malls and churches begin to be almost half-empty again, while the streets and highways struggle to keep busy with commerce and daily life.


We ask: What’s next? Globally, Omicron has become the most frustrating bad news of the New Year. This variant is very transmissible and adept at evading immune defenses. Although less severe it is still dangerous. How can we not know this dreaded disease up close when every day, it has been the main content on FB and mainstream media since the start of the Pandemic? Most people who fall sick will experience mild to moderate symptoms and recover without special treatment. Nevertheless, almost 6 million people have died from covid, and many more millions have become seriously ill requiring medical attention. By now, we should know how not to get the virus or at least be protected.


The coming of the Omicron serves as another disaster drill for readiness and survival. It’s a disaster response awakening and alarm. The Pandemic caught us unprepared. Are we still unprepared today? Being part of TBM and its vision for resilient and sustainable communities, I think that what we need to remember has gone normal - the world is one whole cycle of outbreaks of disease, war, and disaster. We are part of how this problem came about. But it is the state policies of every country and how its government pursues equality of choices and human development that spells a big difference. Pressed for an answer if the Omicron may be the start of the end of the Pandemic, the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was optimistic that the Covid-19 Pandemic would end in 2022 only if inequity ends in the global response to the health crisis – with most of the poor countries, the Philippines included, driven out of the access to nutritional food, other basic needs, medicines, vaccines, and facilities cornered by the West (emphasis provided).