In The News Quiz December 6, 2021

Waiting for Omicron

News reports from around the world over the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday weekend were replete with warnings about a new coronavirus variant, which the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) labeled “omicron” in keeping with the practice of naming COVID variants for Greek letters. Apparently originating in South Africa, the omicron variant had spread by Sunday evening to every continent, with Canada reporting the first North American cases on Sunday. No known cases were yet confirmed in the U.S. as the weekend drew to a close.

Little is known about the new variant—whether it is more easily transmitted or more (or less) dangerous to human health than other variants, and whether existing COVID vaccines offer protection against this strain. Geopolitically, the announcement of a new variant raised alarms worldwide. Stock markets plunged on fears of a slowed global financial recovery, while oil and other goods affected by COVID’s previous spread saw sharp price drops. Governments rushed to enact travel bans on visitors from southern Africa; Israel closed its borders to all foreign travelers, with several other nations poised to do the same. And many political leaders issued renewed calls for vaccinations and booster shots. Across Africa, just 6 percent of the continent’s 1.2 billion people have received the COVID vaccine (the U.S. figure currently stands at just under 60 percent).

Travel restrictions, which countries from Australia and Brazil to Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and the U.S. enacted in order to slow the new variant’s spread, were criticized soon after they were announced. Officials in South Africa and neighboring countries complained that they were unfairly penalized for “doing the right thing”—swiftly announcing the presence of the omicron variant. Public-health experts expressed concern at plans to close borders, noting that previous border closings had little effect on COVID’s spread; had been proven to damage national economies; and might serve to corrode a sense of international community, already battered by the coronavirus.

What do you think? Should the U.S. and other countries restrict travel from southern Africa and consider closing their borders to all international travelers, in order to halt the omicron variant’s spread? Or would you recommend that public-health officials gather more medical knowledge of the new variant before taking bold and perhaps unnecessarily restrictive steps like these?

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