Far from alleviating the extreme dilemmas the pandemic presents leaders, the milder Omicron variant is making them more acute — partly because its transmissibility is still filling hospitals and gutting vital workforces. And yet, as the global crisis enters a third year, there’s a palpable sense that populations, at least in democracies, are beginning to move on — through exhaustion or collective common sense — to a new accommodation with Covid-19. But China’s Communist rulers are going in the opposite direction, locking down millions of their people as they try to prevent the Winter Olympics — a showcase for the country’s emerging superpower might — from becoming a humiliating epicenter of infection.
In the US and parts of Europe, meanwhile, this shift is also being driven by the fact many people have tested positive, or know someone who has, and experienced few symptoms, leading to questions about the logic of current public health guidance, including recommendations for people to isolate, even if they are asymptomatic and fully vaccinated.
But the pandemic pattern that saw national, state and local governments struggle to keep up with the chameleon threat of an invisible enemy is being repeated in this new phase of the struggle. Many are rushing to adapt Covid isolation protocols and testing and booster shot regimes specific to Omicron, balancing a desire to alleviate often record hospitalizations with the lessened impact of the virus elsewhere.
Early in the pandemic, then-President Donald Trump was criticized for putting political and economic considerations ahead of science. But there are growing signs that leaders like President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron or Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison are now also adopting a more politicized approach, driven by shifting public opinion, circumstance and electoral self-preservation. Leaders now insist schools must stay open, lockdowns are not an option and, in some cases, argue that the unvaccinated — who make up most of those in intensive care units — have made their choice.
A critical Supreme Court case
In Washington, the administration is on tenterhooks to see whether one of the prime weapons of Biden’s armory against the virus — vaccine requirements for large companies and certain health care workers — will survive a skeptical Supreme Court.
The decision is expected at any time, but a hearing last week featured a conservative majority apparently open to arguments that Biden overstepped his powers, at least with regard to big business. Betraying its anxiety, the White House on Monday circulated a opinion piece from “The Hill” newspaper by a George Washington University School of Medicine expert that warned that Covid-19 was “killing the nation’s workforce” and urged the justices to uphold Biden’s mandates.
The case, rooted in challenges to the measures by Republican-led states, revives the long duel between individual freedom and the extraordinary measures the government uses to fight a pandemic that threatens everyone regardless of political affiliation. If the court rules against the administration, it’s hard to argue that it will not be responsible for more sickness and death simply because of the realities of the virus. At a minimum, big firms will have to consider their own powers to require vaccination, a factor that could delay post-Omicron reopening or have economic impacts at a time when the virus is still killing an average of more than 1,200 Americans every day.
Famous vaccine skeptic holds serve in Australia
The Supreme Court case is a test of the complicated choices being forced on Western democracies by the worst pandemic in 100 years. In some ways, as divisive as it is, this is the safety valve of democracy working as it should — allowing the airing of opposing opinions at a time of national stress.
As Biden struggles to fulfill his vow to close down the virus, he has the consolation of not facing the political heat alone.
Morrison’s government has every political incentive to take a tough stand against Djokovic. Firstly, everyone traveling to Australia, even citizens, needs to show proof of vaccination with rare exceptions. The country has endured almost two years of near isolation from the rest of the world. Families were split. Now, many Australians suspect that Djokovic got special treatment because of who he is and his capacity to pay a high-powered legal team.
And although many are angry at Djokovic, his case is also raising questions about whether such strict entry rules make sense any more with Omicron spreading like wildfire. Morrison has tried to straddle the political debate by saying the country must move past the “heavy hand of government” by ending lockdowns, but he’s getting hammered by the opposition and feuding with states like Western Australia and Queensland that adopted more cautious Covid-19 guidance.
Macron’s uncompromising shift
The case of Djokovic also intersects with another debate: the extent to which those who have refused to take safe, mostly free and effective vaccines are now responsible for curtailing the freedoms of the fully vaccinated and boosted.
In the United States and elsewhere, limitations on daily life might be less restrictive had more people taken their shots — and been largely protected from the serious illness that is threatening to swamp hospitals. In many cases, those most reluctant to embrace vaccines often also come from conservative areas where measures like social distancing and mask-wearing are less observed. But the clashing cultural responses to the pandemic underscore America’s creed of individualism and broad suspicion of European-style collective responsibility.
In France, however, President Emmanuel Macron, is putting his political credibility on the line with a tough stance against the unvaccinated. Like Morrison, Macron is within weeks of an election. The French President, who has often seemed imperious in the Elysée Palace and has had an up-and-down relationship with the public, is pushing stiffened legislation that would require a vaccine pass to enter restaurants, bars and to travel inside the country.
An Olympian crackdown
Complaints, however, that Macron is betraying Napoleonic instincts pale in comparison with draconian measures adopted by China to suppress new outbreaks of the virus that first emerged in the central city of Wuhan before spreading worldwide.
China’s party bosses have placed extraordinary political prestige on holding the Games, and a major outbreak in the athletes village would be a public relations disaster. Tight restrictions are in place for competitors, officials and media entering China for the Olympics. But given the highly transmissible Omicron variant, it is hard to see how China’s attempt to completely keep its more than 1 billion people isolated is sustainable in the long term, especially since the country has been largely cut off from the world for two years.
Even in an authoritarian nation, the pressures of the pandemic create serious strains, although they may not be as openly discussed as those in a democracy, especially one as internally divided as the United States. Strongman President Xi Jinping has tried everything to ensure China lives without Covid-19. But even he may now have no choice but to live with it, as difficult as that may be.