Fear has been the driving force in determining our way of life for nearly two years, so perhaps it should not be surprising that it only took four men in Africa with Hay Fever-like symptoms to cause a stock market crash, trigger a new spate of travel bans, and rebooted talk of government lockdowns. On Black Friday, America’s Thanksgiving revelries were engulfed in a wave of fear. In a moment, our hard-won victories over COVID-19 were jeopardized, and we couldn’t help but assume the worst: The reset button had been pressed on COVID-19.
If this feels like an overreaction, it is because it was. Specimens of a new COVID-19 variant exhibiting dozens of genetic mutations had been collected in Botswana on November 11 and in South Africa on November 14. South African scientists reported the variant B.1.1.529 to the World Health Organization (WHO) on November 24. Two days later, the WHO named the variant Omicron and classified it as a variant of concern, warning, “Omicron is a highly divergent variant with a high number of mutations, including 26–32 in the spike, some of which are concerning and may be associated with immune escape potential and higher transmissibility.”
Immediately, President Joe Biden implemented a travel ban on eight African countries, and New York governor Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency while restoring the Department of Health’s authority to limit non-essential medical procedures. Novavax announced that it had already started working on a version of its COVID-19 vaccine to target the Omicron variant’s spike protein, saying it would have the shot ready for testing and manufacturing within weeks. And, after admitting an ignorance of Omicron and the possibility that it may be capable of evading immunity, Dr. Anthony Fauci reminded Americans that the most important line of protection will remain getting vaccinated or getting a booster dose.
America experienced an overwhelming sense of DeJa’Vu. Within hours of the WHO announcement on Black Friday, our nation was already taking the very same steps that had failed to work against the original virus strain, and our national news media was no less hyperbolic in their reporting than they were the first time, even suggesting the need to return to government lockdowns. It seemed we were back to square one—not only in our national response, but also in our inability to resist infection.
This sentiment was affirmed not even a week later in an unreviewed study awaiting publication. It concluded that, unlike the Beta and Delta variants, “population-level evidence suggests that the Omicron variant is associated with substantial ability to evade immunity from prior infection.” Not only did the study indicate that natural immunity may offer very little defense against this variant, it also questioned whether Omicron may be able to evade vaccine-induced immunity, along with its protection against severe disease and death.
Already, Omicron has become the dominant strain in South Africa. The New York Times reports, “A month ago, South Africa had fewer than 300 new virus cases a day; on Friday and again on Saturday, the figure was more than 16,000.” Likewise, in an open letter to the country, South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa notes, “Nearly a quarter of all Covid-19 tests now come back positive. Compare this to two weeks ago, when the proportion of positive tests was sitting at around 2 percent.”
Such rapid spread is highly concerning and appears to support initial concerns that the mutations to the virus’ binding receptors may make Omicron the most contagious variant to date, perhaps even capable of evading both natural immunity and vaccine-induced immunity. Indeed, in the 12 days since Omicron was announced, it has been identified in travelers to at least 55 countries on six continents. Within America, the first confirmed case of Omicron appeared in California on December 1 in a fully vaccinated traveler returning from South Africa. Now, one week later, it has been identified in 18 states.
The true threat posed by Omicron remains unknown. After all, it wasn’t long ago that we were exposed to similar media hype about how the Mu and Lambda variants could evade vaccine immunity. Moreover, early data offers hope that Omicron may be far less virulent. Regardless, the threat of Omicron offers us a moment of clarity as we evaluate our response to fear.
Fear is a powerful motivator. It necessarily drives us to action. For most of us, it triggers our flight instinct, prompting us to run toward safety.
Confronted with the fear of hitting reset on our entire war against COVID-19, where did we seek refuge? Incredibly, many of us once again turned to the same government officials promising the same illusive salvation via science. Have we truly learned nothing these past two years? If the difficulty of a pandemic and the threat of repeating the oppressive measures of 2020 are not sufficient to drive us to instead seek refuge in God, then honestly, what will it take?
Perhaps the problem rests in the times of blessing between our times of trial. Before we have any hope of using times of difficulty to guide others to God, we ourselves must be willing to place our faith and hope in God above all else. However, this is a cultivated trust. It is a reliance that is established over time. We cannot rely primarily upon ourselves for years at a time and expect that in our moment of fear and need we will necessarily seek refuge in the very God that we’ve come to ignore during times of peace, stability, and blessing.
Too many of us have assumed that we will inevitably rely upon God, standing firm in our faith during times of difficulty simply because we are Christians. Truth be told, the Bible is full of Christian testimonies of men and women who fell flat on their faces in times of difficulty. Far from seeking refuge in God, fear drove them to chased after idols, bow to culture, or even denounce their faith.
Moments like the rise of Omicron provide a litmus test for our faith. Faced with the unimaginable—the possibility of hitting reset on COVID-19—what was our first reaction, and where did we seek refuge? If our first instinct was to rely upon government and science, then we have serious room for improvement. These are 21st century idols that will inevitably fail us. Let us, instead, heed the exhortation of King David when he says in Psalm 34:1–2, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! Oh fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!” And what easier place to begin than in the minutia of our daily lives between times of difficulty?
1. Ward, Myah. “Biden Admin Announces Travel Ban for South Africa and 7 Other Countries, Citing New Variant.” News. Politico, November 11, 26, 2021, 2:06 p.m., EST. Last updated November 26, 2021, 2:42 p.m., EST. https://www.politico.com/news/2021/11/26/biden-admin-announces-travel-ban-for-south-africa-and-7-other-countries-citing-new-variant-523394.
2. “Omicron Variant: What You Need to Know.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d. Last updated December 7, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/omicron-variant.html.
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4. Downey, Caroline. “Biden Administration Imposes Travel Ban on Eight African Nations amid ‘Omicron’ Variant.” News. National Review, November 26, 2021, 3:11 p.m. https://www.nationalreview.com/news/biden-administration-imposes-travel-ban-on-eight-african-nations-amid-omicron-variant/.
5. “Governor Hochul Announces Urgent Action to Boost Hospital Capacity and Address Staffing Shortages.” Governor Kathy Hochul’s Press Office, November 26, 2021. https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-hochul-announces-urgent-action-boost-hospital-capacity-and-address-staffing-shortages.
6. Maddipatla, Manojna and Mrinalika Roy. “Novavax Developing Vaccine That Targets New COVID-19 Variant.” Business. Reuters, November 26, 2021, 6:04 p.m., EST. https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/novavax-testing-vaccine-that-targets-new-covid-19-variant-2021-11-26/.
7. Stoddard, Catherine. “Fauci Says Omicron Variant Could Be ‘Red Flag,’ Urges COVID-19 Boosters for All.” Fox KTVU, November 26, 2021. Last updated November 26, 2021, 6:22 p.m. https://www.ktvu.com/news/fauci-says-omicron-variant-could-be-red-flag-urges-covid-19-boosters-for-all.
8. Pulliam, Juliet, Cari Schalkwyk, Nevashan Govender, Anne von Gottberg, Cheryl Cohen, Michelle Groome, Jonathan Dushoff, Koleka Mlisana and Harry Moultrie. “Increased Risk of SARS-CoV-2 Reinfection Associated with Emergence of the Omicron Variant in South Africa.” Preprint. MedRxiv, December 2, 2021. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.11.11.21266068v2.
10. Chutel, Lynsey, Richard Perez-Pena, and Emily Anthes. “Omicron Is Fast Moving, but Perhaps Less Severe, Early Reports Suggest.” New York Times, December 6, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/06/world/africa/omicron-coronavirus-research-spread.html.
13. Shear, Michael, Shawn Hubler, Roni Rabin, Sheryl Stolberg and Jill Cowan. “The First Omicron Case Has Been Detected in the U.S.” Health. New York Times, December 1, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/01/health/omicron-first-us-case-california.html.
14. Corum, Jonathan and Carl Zimmer. “Tracking Omicron and Other Coronavirus Variants.” Interactive. New York Times, n.d. Last updated December 8, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/health/coronavirus-variant-tracker.html.
15. McNamara, Damian. “COVID Variant Mu Made a Splash, Disappeared without a Peep.” News. WebMD, October 6, 2021. https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20211006/mu-made-splash-disappeared-quietly.
16. Liu, Haolin, Pengcheng Wei, Qiangian Zhang, Katja Aviszus, Jared Linderberger, John Yang, Junfeng Liu, Zhongzhou Chen, Hassan Waheed, Lyndon Reynoso, Gregory Downey, Stephen Frankel, John Kappler, Philippa Marrack and Gongyi Zhang. “The Lambda Variant of SARS-CoV-2 Has a Better Chance Than the Delta Variant to Escape Vaccines.” Preprint. National Institutes of Health, August 26, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8404886/.
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