It is not too late to see that trust in individuals got us here – not selling fear.
President Biden is selling fear – now of Omicron. On Tuesday, he will push new warnings, pivot to another “must get the booster,” scare Americans into prioritizing fear over hope, separation, and isolation over Christmas and Hanukkah. Is that really the right approach?
Writing anything about Omicron is risky, as thoughtful, seasoned doctors tell me. There is so much we do not know. Starting from that premise, what do we know? Several things – and rather than creating fear, they suggest hope and confidence, a return to common sense, basic caution.
First, as a rule, viruses – of which there are objectively billions – replicate, recombine, and change over time with two largely predictable outcomes. The first is a tendency to transmit more easily or with greater frequency. The second is a tendency toward reduced severity. See, e.g., Maybe Someday Covid-19 Will Be Just Another Common Cold; Omicron possibly more infectious because it shares genetic code with common cold coronavirus, study says.
Second, Omicron appears to mimic many symptoms of the common cold, a pool of known rhinoviruses. While similarities are imperfect and confusing, recombination looks possible.
Specifically, experts report that Omicron symptoms may include “a scratchy throat (as opposed to a sore throat), dry cough, extreme tiredness, mild muscle aches, and night sweats,” while common cold symptoms often include “a blocked or runny nose, sore throat, headaches, muscles aches, coughs, a raised temperature, pressure in your ears and face, and loss of taste and smell.” See, e.g., Omicron variant may have picked up a piece of common-cold virus: experts; These ‘five distinct symptoms’ may help you differentiate Omicron from regular cold; Omicron symptoms may differ from those of other COVID-19 variants.
Putting aside which of these two sets of symptoms is worse, similarities are vexing. Many people who get Omicron may mistake it for the cold and vice versa. Both are easily transmitted, both may create downstream complications for some, even if easily overcome by others.
Third, numbers are educational and comforting. Sometimes we lose perspective, misunderstand the balance between frequency and severity, allow fear to dominate. The odds of getting struck by lightning, an asteroid, falling tree, or a runaway car are small, yet the idea triggers worry.
Similarly, we walk around every day subject to colds yet fear them little. We have had them, know the drill, runny nose, feeling yucky, recovery, and onward. But something new is necessarily uncertain, and we are programmed to be alert to new uncertainties.
What are the real numbers? They might shock you. Americans get more than a billion colds a year, on average two-to-four per person, managed without hysteria, often ignored. We feel the same thing as before, groan a bit, sleep a bit, rally for “must do” things, and carry on.
How many Omicron cases so far? What is the severity? So far, Omicron – which seems as contagious as colds – accounts for three percent of US COVID cases, 13 percent of new ones. If spreading quickly, like a cold, it seems to leave a relatively light footprint, not like delta. See, e.g., Omicron now makes up almost 3% of U.S. Covid cases, according to the CDC;
Dark voices, many in the media, predict a “tidal wave” which could lead to “record hospitalizations” and “scary” outcomes. Draconian measures, mandatory boosters, isolation, return to remote learning, new mandates of various types are all forecast. See, e.g., Omicron could bring the worst surge of COVID yet in the U.S. — and fast.
Putting aside political motivations for spreading fear, these voices urge more federal mandates, required booster shots, mail-in ballots (now suddenly discussed), and the idea that Omicron could be worse than delta. All this seems a bit hysterical.
Omicron is distinguishable from the common cold, has produced seven deaths in the United Kingdom, is not the “Omicold.” But defaulting to hysteria seems misplaced, at best premature. See, e.g., 7 Deaths From Omicron Covid-19 Coronavirus Variant In UK, Showing It’s Not The ‘Omicold.’
The reality is that viruses are innumerable, the human body designed to beat them, often forced to struggle in that effort. If people enter the struggle compromised by a past viral battle, organ weakness, immune deficiency, or underlying medical handicap, they have a harder battle.
But the main point is that perspective should not depart us, cause us to move from basic precautions, realistic evaluation of risk and benefit – person-by-person – to collective hysteria, guided by ubiquitous fear, terrorized by an imagined Black Plague.
Bottom line is that – for various reasons, some understandable, others mystifying – national leaders who should be about calm, confidence, realism, and rational thinking – are selling fear.
That approach – selling fear – is unhealthy and ultimately less effective than trust and truth. In WWII, we did not sell war bonds by saying, “Buy them or your loved one dies,” but appealing to free choice. Encouraging flu shots, we do not tell people, “Get it, or you lose your job.” Good hygiene, hand washing, cough covering is not federally mandated, just strongly encouraged.
Somehow, the currency of modern communication – and President Biden will share some Tuesday – is fear, fear of the virus, fear of speech, fear of our neighbors, fear of climate, fear of anything to trigger emotion, reducing confidence in self, elevating reliance on government.
Missing is a plain vanilla appeal to rationality, self-reliance, awareness, and exercise of good judgment, a thoughtful balance of risks and benefits, less emotion, more devotion to common sense. It is not too late to see that trust in individuals got us here – not selling fear.