Age of Omicron

This month, we began our fifth (!) semester under the Covid pandemic. I still remember when, two years ago, the news of Covid19 broke in China during January of 2020. Inside a couple weeks, cases hit 80,000 – a number that seemed phenomenal at the time. I remember thinking, “This could be it. This could be the big one.”

By The Big One, I meant the emerging infectious disease that would succeed in dispersing itself across the globe. For decades, scientists had been expecting – and trying to prepare – for the next pandemic. As an evolutionary ecologist, I understood a modern pandemic was inevitable, given our population density and the increasing opportunities for zoonotic disease. I just didn’t want to be right about that, then or ever.

At the start of 2021, I – like many people – felt optimistic that we were about to turn the corner on Covid19. Medical personnel and frontline workers were being vaccinated. Within a few months, I would be vaccinated too. To this day, I believe one of the greatest achievements of modern science was the speed with which the Covid19 vaccines were developed.

Then last summer, just as we thought we were getting back to normal, the perfect storm hit: Mask mandates and other protocols to protect public health were abandoned while resistance to getting the vaccine remained high. The Delta variant emerged, raged through the unvaccinated population, and left many debilitated or dead. Most recently, Delta has given way to Omicron. Meanwhile, across the globe hundreds of millions still do not have access to the vaccine – reminding us that a global challenge requires a global solution, one we have not been successful at charting or implementing.

Like many people, I spent much of the winter holidays coming to terms with the fact that we are in this for the long haul. For myself and my own health, I don’t worry that much anymore. So far, I have weathered this pandemic in a place of privilege; maintaining my employment while having access to the vaccine in an environment that embraces caring for each other and a science-based approach to public health. But I can see the toll the pandemic is taking on people around me, in my community, and for my country as a whole. This saddens and angers me because all the suffering is so unnecessary at this point. We have simple solutions: Get the vaccine, or wear a mask. In places of high risk, do both.

Until that message hits home, Covid will continue to teach us – force us – to expect the unexpected. I consider this a valuable lesson and one I’ve had to re-learn many times in life.

I remain grateful for my good health and the continued good health of my family – who, although they represent all sides of the political spectrum, have all been vaccinated, and eagerly so. It’s wonderful to be back in class with my students, to go out to restaurants again, and to attend the occasional theater production. These small luxuries have taken on great meaning for me. I feel deeply indebted to the many who have worked very hard to promote adequate public health measures, to develop and distribute the vaccine, and to care for our loved ones who have fallen ill, so we can began to rebuild some of the better parts of our pre-pandemic life.

I wish everyone beginning this new semester – students, faculty, staff, parents, and the communities that support us – renewal and success in this season of uncertainty.

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