The Washington Post

Are we overreacti­ng to omicron?


It’s just a guess, but I’m willing to bet the kit and caboodle that most Americans aren’t shedding tears over President Biden’s ban on travelers from nations affected by covid-19’s latest variant.

You’ve got to hand it to the virus: Unlike most of its human incubators, covid-19 knows what it’s doing. No matter how many defenses we concoct, or how many vaccines we invent, the virus adapts and reconfigur­es itself, each time improving its chances for survival.

This time, covid-19’s new omicron variant has hit southern Africa, where vaccines have been in short supply. Thus far, scientists worry that omicron is more transmissi­ble than the delta variant.

As a result, several countries, including the United States, Japan, Israel, Canada, the members of the European Union and possibly others are closing their borders to most travelers from eight countries: South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. The list is likely to grow as the virus spreads, and because it is possible, I hear, to fly somewhere else before catching a plane to the United States.

Some African leaders have called the travel bans an overreacti­on, but we have already tried underreact­ing. As I recall, that didn’t go so well. The World Health Organizati­on has warned against imposing travel restrictio­ns and urged a “riskbased and scientific approach” — whatever that means. South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla has said the restrictio­ns are unjustifie­d. How does he know? How does anyone know anything — yet? They don’t, and that’s the point. Hence the travel bans.

The relative risk of widespread infection from travelers may be statistica­lly insignific­ant, but why take a chance? If you ask whether my conscience is burdened by the ban’s effect on a relative few, my honest answer may put un-woke readers in mind of “Gone With the Wind’s” Rhett Butler. Or, perhaps, Woodstock’s Country Joe and the Fish. I’m dating myself, I realize, so I will spell it out: I don’t give a damn.

Barring the economic collapse of any of these eight countries, because of shortterm travel restrictio­ns, isn’t it merely sensible to try to stem disseminat­ion of the variant for a few weeks until we know more about its transmissi­bility and the effectiven­ess of existing vaccines?

Yes. Of course. Biden has called the U.S. ban a “precaution­ary measure” until we know more. Meanwhile, scientists will be mimicking bartenders by shaking and then testing vials filled with a mixture of vaccinated human blood and the omicron variant, as CNN medical correspond­ent Sanjay Gupta has explained the process.

It’s possible that some people will miss spending the holiday season with loved ones — just as it’s possible that we here at home will face the return of unpleasant restrictio­ns that we have only recently believed were safely behind us.

But neither represents the end of life as we know it. They are disappoint­ments. I sympathize with Ruth DainesSlac­k, who told the BBC she was planning to travel from Cape Town to the United Kingdom for Christmas and her mom’s 100th birthday celebratio­n. But a woman who has made it to 100 knows something about disappoint­ment, and a good long visit on Skype may have to do until the ban is lifted.

Apologies for the cynicism, but we humans have become so spoiled and entitled, we can hardly suffer a slow Uber driver, a long line at the grocery or bank, a shortage of nearly anything, or the slightest disruption­s in our cherished routines. Missing a flight can seem like the end of the world. But once more — and probably not for the last time — we all need to take steps to limit the spread of a deadly disease for just a while.

One country, Japan, offers a compelling model. Japan is a vibrant, friendly, high-functionin­g country, which is why so many travelers want to go there. Japan knows how to do stuff. Like shut their borders. They have closed their doors to virtually everyone for a month.

As of 2019, about 76,000 Americans were living in Japan, and I’m a bit surprised that number isn’t higher. We seem to be attracted to the pristine and the competent, even if we can’t duplicate it ourselves. There’s a reason for this: Japan doesn’t put up with anybody’s nonsense. Stay home, says Japan, we don’t care if your feelings are hurt.

It’s apparently not in our DNA to delay gratificat­ion, but the world would benefit immeasurab­ly by cultivatin­g patience and a culture of grit. In the meantime, we should aspire to be more like Japan the virus. Both adapt to reality for maximum survival — and both know what they’re doing.

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