Omicron COVID-19: The travel lockdown policy feed-back loop - analysis

In Israel, the policymakers have determined that we need to follow the European chaos model of addressing COVID

The departure hall at the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on January 25, 2021.  (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
The departure hall at the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on January 25, 2021.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

In the UK, Health Secretary Sajid Javid has not ruled out a two-week lockdown after Christmas. The Netherlands has beaten them to it, announcing a strict lockdown. Germany has tightened restrictions on UK travelers, and France is banning them.

In Israel, the policy-makers have determined that we need to follow the European chaos model of addressing COVID. So we are banning foreign travel again, listing a plethora of countries as “red,” and we will be careening toward another roller-coaster of lockdowns and restrictions.

You can be forgiven if you think you’ve woken up and been sent back to March 2020. Indeed, the government of Israel and many Western governmental health authorities that it watches closely are following the same ham-handed playbook.

The new COVID variant, Omicron, should be called COVID 3.0 because it’s essentially just rebooting the systematic responses. This is because there is little evidence that in a globalized world – once the “Omicron” variant is in 89 countries, as the WHO says it now is – stopping travel now will do anything. This isn’t 1830, when people could be kept on a mooring in the harbor with a yellow quarantine flag. This is 2021.

Today, we have ostensibly learned a lot about the virus and its threats through almost two years of experience. We and similarly advanced societies around the world have the best fast-testing for COVID available, including rapid antigen tests, serological reverse transcriptase polymerase chain-reaction rapid (RT-PCR) tests, lab tests, viral tests, take-home tests, tests done via video to confirm them, lateral flow tests and tests of tests.

We also require testing before travel, on arrival and several days after. The only thing we aren’t doing is testing people in midair and then sending them back prior to landing. Despite all the tools we have, the preference of policy-makers is for chaos over clarity.

 Travelers at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on September 6, 2021.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Travelers at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on September 6, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

In the Netherlands, the new rules will set “strict limits on the number of people who can meet. A maximum of two guests, aged 13 and over, are allowed in people’s homes. This will rise to four people between 24 and 26 December, and on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day,” the BBC reported.

Why? A failure to act now would likely lead to “an unmanageable situation in hospitals,” the Dutch leader has claimed.

Wealthy countries like the Netherlands had two years to prepare their hospitals – sort of like China did in 10 days in Wuhan in February 2020, when it built a special hospital to confront the initial outbreak. But the West is not China, as we are continually reminded.

In fact, these days, with cases skyrocketing for the last month in Europe, even before Omicron arrived, Western countries seem to be going right back to square one when it comes to tactics against COVID. Yet Western media and governments have generally claimed this wasn’t going to be the case. There was a plan to return to normal, open up and treat COVID as endemic.

It wasn’t so long ago that Western media were mocking China’s “zero-COVID” strategy, which has kept the Asian country without the kind of chaos that Europe and Israel are now seeing. On November 4, CNN called China’s zero-COVID strategy an “obsession” and said China was a “COVID purgatory.”

The strategy of Israel, an early adopter of vaccines, was that vaccination was the way out of this mess. In Israel and Europe, the goal appears to be to keep pushing boosters as a way to help society and continue with new restrictions to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed and to “buy time.”

“France’s Prime Minister Jean Castex has compared Omicron to ‘lightning’ and his government appears willing to take the hit, accelerating its booster program in the meantime,” the BBC reported. This posits that rolling out more boosters is a race against time with Omicron.

Several months ago, policy-makers in the West had gambled on vaccine rollouts to stop COVID. In September, US President Joe Biden said we were in a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

American media especially blamed the continuing pandemic on the unvaccinated and increasingly encouraged people to get vaccinated. America was an early user of vaccines for young children. Now the US, which is seeing rising COVID cases again, is warning of a winter of illness and claiming that unvaccinated people will risk death in this new wave.

When countries use overall cases as a barometer and turn out vaccines that offer waning immunity, and people who are vaccinated and “boosted” are still getting Omicron, the stage is set for a new crisis. Reports say more than 85% of the adults in the Netherlands are vaccinated. For the last several weeks, however, reports have also warned of “waning immunity” from vaccines as countries race for the next answer: boosters.

The problem facing Israel is that there are already hundreds of confirmed Omicron cases. Fears are that Israel could face unprecedented numbers of cases. Ynet has called for the airport to be closed.

The numbers the country looks at to determine if it is doing well are the positivity rate of tests –which recently was more than 1%, as 372 people tested positive out of 35,450 tests – and the “R” number, or the rate of transmission, which recently reached 1.15, the highest amount in the last three months.

In short, the measure Israel uses, and which most other similarly advanced countries use, tell policy-makers that hospitalizations might go up. They reach for the old playbook: travel chaos and lockdowns. Yet we are almost in year three of the pandemic, with a highly vaccinated society, and countries suffering Omicron, such as South Africa, don’t have high numbers of deaths.

This should lead us to question the travel chaos. Why haven’t we simply opened up travel to all the countries that have similar policies, such as tests before and after flights? The US rolled out new guidelines for travel enabling fully vaccinated people to arrive on November 8, but then rolled out stricter testing requirements on December 6 due to Omicron.

There should be a better way than this. People can’t live normally and never know when expensive flights will be canceled, or when families and business will be thrown into chaos, whether they followed the guidelines for the last two years or not.

Policy-makers and experts have put out mixed messaging. They say vaccines will work, while also arguing that over time this pandemic will become endemic or similar to the “common cold,” as articles at CNN and Sky News have said.

If both these assertions are accurate, then counting every case or even transmission rates flies in the face of the argument that vaccines work and that COVID will become endemic. If it’s like measles or the flu, defeated by a vaccine or a shot, then we don’t need to obsess over “waves” and each new case. The numbers will be cyclical. And that means we don’t need to close airports and act as if every country is an island.

We already opted not to be an island, like China or New Zealand, and pursue “zero COVID,” so it would behoove an alliance of countries with similar policies to work together with a cordon sanitaire around a large bloc, restricting others to testing and quarantines but enabling free movement within. Otherwise, we are just entering another COVID feedback loop of chaos and restrictions.