Omicron could represent freedom or further imprisonment. For South Africans and other African nations omicron already represents lack of freedom. The international doors to Africa are being slammed shut, while the COVID horses are galloping forward in many directions across the globe. We are told that caution should be taken in regard to spread of omicron and there is definite merit in that approach, slowing down infection rises and effects on health systems. However, it remains unclear whether such a cautious approach might be taken for a variant arising in the USA, or the UK; let’s hope we don’t get to find out whether this statement is correct or not.
My current hopes for omicron are that it could represent freedom of a degree we have not envisaged for a while. There is some evidence out there to back such a hope, although there is general agreement that the next two weeks will be the proof of the pudding, or virus. There is the possibility that omicron will prove highly infectious (infect more people more quickly) but less virulent than delta (make the people who get it less sick than with delta). Omicron might thus sweep through populations with less effect on health systems but more effect in terms of making lots of people immune to COVID. I am going to believe this until there is evidence to the contrary, emphasising that I will definitely continue to sweep media for such evidence on a regular basis (and noting that, apparently, the same was reported of alpha and delta variants early on). I slightly puzzle myself as to why I am taking such a positive view on Omicron. Am I just being reactive against negative media hype? Maybe we are all just tired of, or with, COVID and are looking for brighter lights a distance down the tunnel? Whatever the reason, the positive side is where my analytical brain is landing for now, and I am finding quite a few people in the same camp.
As for freedom, I’m pretty big on freedom. Freedom is my greatest personal underlying driver, colouring the strategy of many of my actions. I do realise that my freedom impinges on the freedom of others, given that we live in a society and don’t exist as isolated little islands. However, when it is time to weigh up multiple parameters in a cost/benefit analysis, I will tend to weigh freedom more heavily than safety and will be highly critical of whether purported ‘safety’ is actually either safer or sufficiently beneficial.
Yesterday was a notable day for freedom in New Zealand, being Freedom Day for Aucklanders. After more than 100 days of lockdown the city is emerging from its COVID-induced gloom into the light of an red traffic light. If I was in Auckland I am pretty sure I would be ecstatic, although that ecstasy might be tempered with a weariness induced by the previous 100 days. Apparently some businesses that have been closed for months opened at 1 minute past midnight, so eager were they to experience the new old.
While Auckland experienced Freedom Day, the rest of the country got to experience the new COVID management system too, in the form of an orange traffic light. Scanning vaccine passports everywhere felt less free than COVID Alert Level 2, although the Prime Minister assures us it is much safer. We will get used to our new traffic light scenario over time, just like we became accustomed to the previous COVID Alert framework, but right now it feels like the traffic lights system encompasses a number of roadblocks and constrains freedom in new ways.
I enthusiastically sent out an email welcoming people to our house for New Year if they would like to come. We have a history of New Year parties in Gibbston and friends and family and been asking if we would do something this year. No sooner had I sent out the email than I realised that I had not put anything in there about vaccination. I took the easy step of generating a COVID QR code poster so that people will be able to scan in. But I have not yet taken the hard step of defining a position on vaccination of people who attend.
Under the orange traffic light rules that we will likely be under come New Year (the government will review the traffic lights on December 13th but I don’t imagine they are likely to change the colours much until the second review on 17th January), we can have up to 50 people at a gathering at our house without needing to ensure that everyone is vaccinated. It isn’t likely that we will have more than 50 people as most people’s New Year’s are already scheduled. But if lots of people did decide to come, and the 51st person arrived, I am legally obliged to turn them away, not a pleasant situation.
But really, turning away number 51 and beyond is not the most difficult part of this scenario. The bigger question is whether we should be requiring everyone coming to our New Year event to be vaccinated to protect everyone’s health (which requires ensuring that we have the ability to, and do, scan vaccine passports). I should have thought about all this before sending any emails, and I should definitely get onto it before someone asks me the question.
So, what is my problem here…do I not want to ensure that everyone at the party is vaccinated, therefore everyone is safer than if there were unvaccinated people present (given that there is very strong evidence that vaccination reduces overall levels of transmission of COVID-19)? I definitely want to reduce the chances of people catching COVID-19 at my house (or anywhere else). I believe that everyone is going to be exposed to COVID in the next 6 months, or likely much sooner unless they are hermits, but I don’t want to be a facilitator of infection. However, there is still something in my brain that doesn’t want to have to announce to all my friends en masse that, unless they are vaccinated, they are not welcome to come to my house. This totally goes against my instinctual grain – if people are my friends I want them to feel welcome. I don’t believe that I will inspire the unvaccinated to become vaccinated by making them feel unwelcome. I do want the unvaccinated to think, but isolating or rejecting people does not tend to be a very good way of getting them to think.
The stance we have taken so far at pa harakeke, is to ask guests individually whether they are vaccinated and then behave appropriately according to their answer. We have four unvaccinated young women staying in our barn and sleepouts at present (two daughters of a former house sitter and their friends). We organised this stay months ago, prior to the existence of COVID passports, and I didn’t want to rescind it. I contacted the group and said I had to ask about vaccination. If they weren’t vaccinated, or didn’t want to tell me, they could still come but we would have to keep 2m distant and use masks and they wouldn’t be able to come inside our house. I feel like this gives them a nudge, but doesn’t exclude them.
All well and good with a single set of barn dwellers, but when you are inviting a large number of people, some of whom will respond at late notice or not respond at all, it is quite a different scenario. The simplest option is to say that vaccine passports will be required, which doesn’t mean anyone has to answer the vaccination question but can decline for whatever reason they choose to provide, or not reply at all. However, the effect of this will be to turn people away with communication or conversation and that doesn’t feel right. But, on the other hand, those who do come will feel safer.
So, thoughtful body of people who are reading this blog, what is your advice?