Understandably , news in recent days of a new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, is causing extreme disquiet everywhere.
Even before this new variant, scientists have struggled to understand the novel coronavirus and its offshoots. As readers surely know, it first turned up in China two years ago and has since taken in excess of five million lives globally, including more than 2,000 in Jamaica.
Available evidence suggests Omicron may be much more transmissible than previous variants of the virus, though the threat in terms of making people very ill remains unclear.
Most worrying perhaps is word from multiple sources that Omicron may be more resistant to vaccines, which have been touted as the best way — alongside preventive measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing and sanitising — to curb virus spread.
Inevitably, much of the world has responded to the new variant with tightened travel and other restrictions, as well as requirements for testing and vaccinations.
The new situation has arisen even as Jamaica is experiencing an encouraging sharp downturn in COVID-19 cases. Many schools have at least partially reopened for face-to-face interaction and there is hope for even more widespread reopening in January with less reliance on the online mode.
It is crystal clear that we need to get our children back to face-to-face learning. Failing that there will be a heavy socio-economic price to pay in the not too distant future.
However, those who should know keep warning that a fourth wave is likely in coming weeks, especially in the period after Christmas and new year's celebration.
In a statement to the elected House of Representatives this week, Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton warned against complacency. He spoke of possible dire consequences from a fourth wave of the novel coronavirus should a large number of Jamaicans drop their guard.
Dr Tufton painted a picture of up to 11,000 new infections at the height of a fourth wave, up to 400 deaths, and an overwhelming of hospital capacity if virus spread again gets out of control.
Although Prime Minister Andrew Holness has said there will be no more lockdowns, we think it would be very difficult for him to stick to that commitment should any scenario close to that described by the health minister come to pass.
On the economic front, another lockdown at the height of the life-giving tourism industry's winter season would have awful negative consequences.
Dr Tufton tells us that, “We [Jamaicans] have a collective duty…to ensure that we do not experience this fourth wave, certainly not in the magnitude that could be possible. Make every effort to ensure that we adhere to the protocols, the provisions under the Disaster Risk Management Act and, above all else, that we vaccinate before we celebrate…”
Clearly, it's not just about inoculation, though scientists say vaccinated people have a much lower risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 than others. The science also shows that abiding by recommended safe behaviour, such as avoiding crowds and clustered situations, wearing a mask, sanitising, and so forth, provide significant protection.
As Christmas approaches, Jamaicans have a responsibility to not just do the right things to protect themselves and others, but to encourage those close to them to do the same.