The advent of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has spawned a new genre of fantasy and science fiction in which males (invariably white) argue that it is an “opportunity” or that the government should open up and let the virus run its course. After all, Omicron is “mild,” as numerous studies are now showing, and even more so among the previously infected and/or vaccinated population.
It’s time, they argue, to accept that COVID-19 will be with us forever and re-open the country. The government must face reality, must “move from denial to acceptance” as one recent poster on LinkedIn put it. This prescription, widespread on social media, is a recipe for disaster.
A recent piece in the English-language media, for example, arguing that Omicron was an “opportunity,” came out at roughly the same time that a factory in Taoyuan had to shut down because some cleaners at the airport who became infected also worked at the factory. Nearly 400 workers at a food processing plant were also tested, same issue.
Photo courtesy of Mitake
These connections emphasize not only the fact that Taiwan is heavily networked in ways that are not readily visible or predictable, but also the way that economic precarity and wage stagnation function to make society that much more vulnerable to the spread of new variants. There is no way someone with a critical cleaning job at the airport should be making so little that they are forced to work in a factory.
One can only imagine how many such closures would be necessary should Omicron rampage across Taiwan. Labor usage is tight, especially in the electronics sector, where foreign workers regularly work overtime shifts to cope with the “shortage” of imported labor (in reality, an unwillingness of local bosses to pay locals to fill the gap). The loss, temporary or permanent, of large numbers of workers to Omicron would be incredibly disruptive.
People who argue that keeping the nation closed is bad for the tourism and several other sectors. They are entirely right. The alternative, however, is far worse.
But disrupted production in the critical export sector is only the beginning of the problem. As of this writing seven schools had been closed in Taoyuan. If Omicron spread widely, it is likely schools would have to close. After all, children in Taiwan are a relatively less vaccinated group, and many of them live with or are cared for by aged relatives, also a proportionately less vaccinated cohort.
Then there is health. The strident emphasis on “mild” Omicron is intended to obscure the issue of how many would be killed by this policy. “Real men,” after all, understand that omelets must result in broken eggs (for some elusive reason women seldom call for the trains to run on time over the bodies of their dead fellow beings).
The New York Times Pitchbot trenchantly satirized this view on Twitter the other day: “Thousands of Americans are dying from Omicron each week,” it observed. “The good news is that most of these deaths are mild.”
In the US and elsewhere, the “mild” Omicron wave has resulted in massive spikes in hospitalization. In recognition of this, last week the medical authorities here in Taiwan were already sending patients home in anticipation of the need for hospital beds.
The hospital system is set up on the fundamental principle that the number of hospital beds in a given region is determined by a formula based on its population. At any given time there are few slack resources in the system, which is one of the reasons medical tourism remains largely an unrealized dream.
This means that local hospitals can easily be swamped. When a cold wave hits there’s a sudden demand for medical services as people experience heart problems, as happened just last week. Slack in the system is needed for events like that. Imagine if Omicron has filled hospital beds across the island, and we have an episode similar to the water park explosion that burned so many children a few years ago, or the train accident in Hualien last year that resulted in over 250 injured. Where will the sick go?
Moreover, any variant can spawn long COVID, with all its attendant problems, as the US CDC noted: “Long COVID can happen to anyone who has had COVID-19, even if their illness was mild, or if they had no initial symptoms.”
Long COVID has profound social costs. Sufferers need everything from routine treatments to double lung transplants, costs the health system will have to absorb, along with economic losses and the costs to the family of care at home.
Omicron on the loose means everyone not only gets to gamble against death, but also gets to play the long COVID lottery. Welcome to the omelet, eggs. Hope you can make your saving throw!
Can you get re-infected? Of course. Anyone really feel like playing the death and long COVID lottery twice? Three times? Me neither. But that is what we will all face if this “opportunity” is seized.
Recall that re-infection rates are orders of magnitude higher than the low numbers one sees, because many authorities will not accept another round of COVID-19 as a re-infection without genetic data showing a different version of the virus is responsible. But few labs, health systems or victims have the time and resources to meet that high bar.
I will not speak of the increased stress on health care workers, the depression, the exhaustion, suicides, the leaving of the industry and especially their high risk of infection and re-infection. After all, the Omicron-as-opportunity crowd doesn’t. For them, health care workers are just discardable resources whose existence is assumed rather than considered.
Every intelligent human can see that COVID-19 isn’t going to go away. The world isn’t going to return to the way it was, just as it didn’t after syphilis and tuberculosis and smallpox, until the advent of modern medicine.
That history suggests that it will be possible to return to some level of “normal” in the future when vaccinations are mandatory for all and medical science possesses an armory of reliable and inexpensive weapons against this disease.
That time certainly isn’t now.
Omicron, many epidemiologists have argued, is eventually going to infect all of us. That may be true, but it does not necessarily follow that we need to be infected right now, all of us at once. Keep Taiwan (Omicron) free!
Notes from Central Taiwan is a column written by long-term resident Michael Turton, who provides incisive commentary informed by three decades of living in and writing about his adoptive country. The views expressed here are his own.
May 23 to May 29 After holding out for seven years, more than 250 Yunlin-based resistance fighters were finally persuaded to surrender in six separate ceremonies on May 25, 1902. The Japanese had subdued most of the Han Taiwanese within six months of their arrival in 1895, but intermittent unrest continued — in Yunlin, the Tieguoshan (鐵國山) guerillas caused the new regime much headache through at least 1901. These surrender ceremonies were common and usually conducted peacefully, but the Japanese had different plans for these troublemakers. Once the event concluded, they gunned down every single attendee with machine guns. Only Chien Shui-shou
The toll rolls on. A gunman walks into a place where humans are peacefully gathering and slaughters them for a militantly-avowed racially-based nationalism, presented in a long manifesto. We are quickly told that the gunman was mentally ill. Obviously — who but a madman could do such a thing? The newspapers dust off one of their “education of a killer” pieces, change the names and run another 1,200 words useful only to those cultivating such killers. The latest of these attacks, on Taiwanese churchgoers in Laguna, California, has spurred much discussion of the long record of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) violence
Household appliances contain plastic components. Medical devices made of sterile plastic, such as disposable syringes and plasma bags, are indispensable to 21st-century healthcare. By preventing bruising and contamination, plastic packaging reduces food waste. Plastic cups and dishes are less fragile than ceramic tableware. PVC pipes and window frames have made house-building cheaper. But not everyone who benefits from this wonder material knows that plastics production requires huge amounts of energy, most of which is generated by burning fossil fuels. Plastics plants are also a source of harmful pollutants including benzene. Nor do all consumers appreciate the extent to which plastic
Tourism is a lopsided industry in most countries, and Taiwan is no exception. On some days, certain places are packed out with visitors, while others hardly ever see an excursionist. It’s probably true to say that tourism is even more uneven in Changhua County than in other counties or municipalities. Almost everyone has toured the famous temples and old streets of Lukang (鹿港), but how many readers of the Taipei Times have set foot in Jhutang (竹塘) or Sijhou (溪州), rural townships on the north bank of the Jhuoshuei River (濁水溪)? Not many people live in Jhutang — fewer than 14,600