Covid jingoism will not protect the west from the threat of Omicron

A friend’s grandmother once told me a story about her late husband’s English golf club. It was the 1960s, and she was having a drink on the club’s terrace with some of the other wives. The men played golf on the links below, and one of them would swear loudly whenever he mis-hit a shot. The women complained to the manager, who promised he would address the matter. The next time the women went to go for a drink on the terrace they found a new sign. It read: “Terrace for male members only.”

I am reminded of this story as I watch western governments react to the new Covid variant. South African scientists alerted the world to Omicron and in turn, South Africa and several other African countries were promptly placed under travel and quarantine restrictions by the west. The first country to introduce a travel ban was, naturally, the UK. Thank you for informing us of the problem, our terrace is now closed.

There is something farcical about a political decision-making complex that has learned nothing from the past two years – two years during which the UK has tried to minimise and assume, at almost every turn, that it could escape the fate of other countries. Two years during which a very particular strain of Anglo-American swagger has emerged – one that falsely believes that if we raise our walls high enough, stockpile our vaccines and establish travel apartheid, then the pandemic will be over for us, even if it continues to rage elsewhere.

It does not seem to matter that during these two years, the worst tragedies did not happen abroad, but within our borders. They happened in our care homes, our hospitals, and in the wake of government indecisiveness over locking down (thrice) when it was clear that cases were rising. Imagine how many lives might have been saved had the UK government put the promised “protective ring” around care homes with the deftness and speed it red-listed and categorised other countries. But we are living in a state of inertia, where politicians continually fail to see that the problem is not that the virus and its variants make their way to the UK, but what happens when they do.

But this is how our institutions are built: to be nimble in some areas, almost paralysed in others. It is now the duty of the Home Office to cast a suspicious eye on entrants to the UK, to limit movement, to deport those deemed unworthy to be here. There is only one setting when problems set in: to shut our borders down. UK border policy is a hammer to which everything is a nail.

Meanwhile, programmes of foreign cooperation and alliance, be it our terminated membership of the EU or our slashed foreign aid budget, have been diminished by the belief that collaboration and sharing of resources with the rest of the world has no benefit to us internally. It is how we reach such biased conclusions that just because African scientists identified the latest Covid problem, the problem must be African. Meanwhile, research on the new variant is being compromised because the necessary materials cannot be flown into South Africa due to the travel restrictions. The result is that tackling Omicron is compromised right at the very time when any new intelligence of the virus is critical. There is no starker example of how jingoism is a shot in the foot.

We move quickly to ban other countries because we are paralysed by the ideological and economic arrangements at home that have undermined much of the response to the pandemic. The stealth privatisation of the NHS, for example, and the stripping of its capacity in the name of “efficiency”. The deregulation of the labour market and weakening of trade unions, which has led to a generation of precarious workers having to choose between their health and their income when they should be isolating. We are caught between two equally powerful forces: the profoundly embedded ways we strive for short-term capital extraction at any cost, and a virus that thrives on the disorder this reckless pursuit of profit creates – as though it has been designed in the lab of a Thanos-like demigod raging against humankind’s propensity for self-destruction.

The government can choose to spin its wheels in futile theatrics in response to Omicron, or it can take sensible measures to prevent the spread of the virus. For starters: clarifying its position on mask wearing, acting decisively on any curbs to Christmas socialising, and learning from its mistakes. As we enter the third year of the pandemic, yet again bewildered by how the virus continues to be one step ahead, it feels like there will be no release until we repent. Until it is understood that there is no return to “normal” without dismantling the very notion of what that normal is, the pandemic will continue to resurge.

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