Covid-19: Omicron poses new challenges, spreads to 77 countries

The variant is said to be more infectious, and in many cases, even fully vaccinated people have contracted the virus

omicronImage: PTI

The Omicron variant of Covid-19, believed to be one of the most infectious strains of the virus, has now spread to over 70 countries across the world including South Africa, India, UK and other densely populated countries. And though this variant has not proved to be as deadly as its predecessors like the Delta variant, experts are urging people to exercise caution with many countries now asking citizens to get a third booster shot.

Addressing a press conference, Tedros A. Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), said, “77 countries have now reported cases of Omicron, and the reality is the Omicron is probably in most countries, even if it hasn’t been detected yet,” adding, “Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant.” The WHO is concerned that “people are dismissing Omicron as mild”, because though the impact of the virus on the human body has so far appeared to be milder, the WHO fears “the impact of the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.”

Omicron is the 15th letter of the Greek Alphabet. The WHO had started the practice of naming variants using letters, after it emerged that identifying the country of origin led to stigma and discrimination against people of those countries. On 26 November 2021, WHO designated the variant B.1.1.529 (Omicron) a variant of concern, on the advice of WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE).   

Given how Omicron is even more infectious, the true extent of its spread will only be revealed in the weeks to come. However, at present, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), India’s total case load stands at 87,562, and as many as 6,982 new cases have been reported in the last 24 hours. This includes cases from all variants present in the country including Delta and Omicron.

After a passenger from South Africa who came to Mumbai via Delhi tested positive on November 24, the state administration swung into action. Institutional quarantine for passengers arriving from South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe was made mandatory in early December. Though now they are required to show proof of testing negative prior to boarding the flight and submit samples for RT-PCR tests on arrival and remain in home quarantine.

According to NDTV, eight new cases of Omicron were recorded in Maharashtra on Tuesday – 7 in Mumbai and one in nearby Virar – all without any travel history. This takes Maharashtra’s tally of Omicron cases to 28. Of these 12 are from Mumbai, 10 from Pimpri-Chinchwad near Pune, 2 from within Pune Municipal Corporation limits, and one each from Kalyan Dombivli, Nagpur, Latur and Vasai Virar. Out of these 9 people have been discharged after recovery, but 19 are still active cases.   

Meanwhile, in Delhi, 4 more people, all asymptomatic, were recorded to have contracted the Omicron variant. While two of them came from the UK, two others were their close contacts. This takes Delhi’s tally to 6 cases of Omicron. According to Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain, “Out of the six cases of Omicron, one patient has been discharged from the hospital, and the rest are in stable condition. Currently, 35 Covid patients and 3 suspected cases are admitted to the LNJP Hospital.”

In Gujarat, the tally stands at 4 – one 72-year-old NRI from Zimbabwe, his wife and brother-in-law in Jamnagar, as well as a 42-year-old man from Surat who had recently returned from South Africa.  

The manner in which the cases are spreading is truly shocking. Vice reported how two guests, both fully vaccinated, lodged in rooms on the same floor of a hotel in Hong Kong contracted Omicron despite never coming into contact with one another. In the UK, Omicron accounts for 4,713 cases. At present it amounts to 20 percent of the Covid-19 cases, and one person is said to have died from this variant. UK is now scrambling to get all adults booster shots by the end of this month.

In India, it appears, even privilege does not protect one against the virus, as none other than actor Kareena Kapoor and her fellow actor and close friend Amrita Arora contracting the disease that they suspect was spread by a guest at a dinner party thrown by filmmaker Karan Johar.

Covid has routinely exposed the gap between the lives of “haves” and “have-nots” in India. Even the initial outbreak of the virus brought into India in early 2020, by tourists or people wealthy enough to undertake international air travel, had a significantly greater impact on people in the lower socio-economic strata. These people who came into contact with their wealthier fellow Indians in course of their work as taxi drivers, domestic helps, security personnel and sundry service staff, then ended up getting infected. Forced to live in close proximity of one another, in tiny tenements that stand cheek-by-jowl in densely populated low-income neighbourhoods, they inevitably ended up passing on the virus to their family, friends and neighbours, thus exacerbating the crisis.



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