It’s been nearly two years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and many of us are – understandably – tired of it. Month after month of restrictions, limitations and the various impacts of COVID have left people exhausted, and often apathetic.
This attitude is compounded by the introduction of the Omicron variant. While highly infectious, many report milder illness from the variant, especially those who are fully vaccinated.
With this development, it’s easy to begin thinking of the pandemic as background noise – something that isn’t really all that worrisome. After all, young and healthy people rarely experience severe illness, and the majority of those hospitalized are unvaccinated.
However, the pandemic is not over. New cases have skyrocketed – over a million new cases were reported on Jan. 24, compared to 129,676 cases on the same date in 2021.
Omicron has convinced many that it’s safe to resume normal life – sitting indoors without a mask for extended periods or meeting with large groups of people. This may bear a semblance of truth – most severe cases of COVID are now occurring in unvaccinated individuals. In a time where refusing the COVID vaccine is seen by many as a moral failure or indication of ignorance, there’s a temptation to disregard empathy for these people. After all, they should have just gotten vaccinated, right?
Not quite. Beyond the fact that a human life is a life regardless of if the human is particularly kind, intelligent or morally upstanding, this viewpoint is blind to the struggles of many chronically ill and disabled people who are for some reason unable to take the vaccine, or are otherwise immunocompromised – people for whom an infection of Omicron could be life-threatening. It’s an extension of the ableism we saw earlier in the pandemic, when many states considered policies that would put disabled people at a lower priority for ventilator access. The policies included those with Down’s syndrome, autism and dementia.
For people with a disabled or immunocompromised loved one, it’s easy to see why we shouldn’t assume COVID is over – but that’s not enough. We all need to show the same care and empathy for our community that we show to our loved ones, regardless of age, ability, race, sex or class. A society that abandons its infirm in times of crisis has an illness just as serious as COVID itself to contend with.
If that’s not motivation enough, consider that being able-bodied is not a permanent or invincible condition. Anyone can become disabled at any time.
The lack of serious illness from Omicron in most people poses another danger in the form of asymptomatic cases. Without knowing that you’re sick at all, you could be spreading COVID everywhere you go. This demonstrates the importance of frequent testing – don’t wait for a known exposure to get tested. UW students and employees can order at-home test kits free of cost at a limit of one per week, providing a simple, effective way to monitor the spread of COVID on campus. More information about testing at UW can be found on the UW-Madison COVID response website.
It’s not all bad. Omicron being a milder variant does provide some hope. It’s beneficial for the virus if it evolves to a point where it coexists with human hosts, rather than killing them – dead hosts don’t spread disease, and high mortality rates drive faster searches for cures and vaccinations. In time, COVID may become like the flu – annoying, but not dangerous for people with no underlying health conditions. However, this is not certain. New, more deadly variants could always evolve, especially with the increased resistance to immunizations we’ve seen in the succession of variants.
So, mask up. Consider double masking, which has been proven to greatly reduce the chance of spreading COVID. Test often, if you can. Get vaccinated, and boosted, if you’re able. Limit gatherings. And, for the love of all that is holy – wash your hands!