The omicron variant and scicomm

Somewhere between the middle of India’s second major COVID-19 outbreak in March-May this year and today, a lot of us appear to have lost sight of a fact that was central to our understanding of COVID-19 outbreaks in 2020: that the only way a disease outbreak, especially of the novel coronavirus, can be truly devastating is if the virus collaborated with poor public health infrastructure and subpar state response. (Similarly, even a variant deemed mild in, say, the UK could lead to disaster in Chennai.) The virus alone doesn’t lead to catastrophic outcomes.

Just as India’s second outbreak was picking up speed, there was a considerable awareness that the delta variant was wreaking as much havoc as we were letting it. In fact, the Indian government was more than letting it. But since the outbreak began to subside in kurtotic fashion and, much later, as the omicron variant appeared on the scene, the focus on the latter has appeared to overwhelm – at least in public discourse – the extent to which we’re prepared (or not) to face it. Put another way, the focus on the omicron variant and the contexts in which it has been discussed have remained far too scientific. I’m not saying that it should become less scientific but that the social should start finding mention more.

I realise that everyone is weary of the pandemic and would like if it ended already, and together with the fact that most people in India’s cities have received their two doses of some COVID-19 vaccine, it might seem to everyone that there’s sufficient ground to persist with the idea that the omicron variant couldn’t possibly be devastating, and that we can all return to some kind of normal soon. Now, this is one kind of fatigue. There appears to be a second kind also, based on the fact that the delta variant was the first “major” variant, in a manner of speaking, and the way we talked about it and acted in its potential (and menacing) presence co-evolved with its dispersal through the population.

The omicron variant, on the other hand, affords both scientists and science communicators the option to simply refer to the narratives and discourses we developed with the delta variant, simply updated to match what we’re finding out about omicron. And this, not surprisingly, has led to a bit of laziness as well. The form I find most lazy, and most annoying, is some scientists’ insistence on pointing to graphs of the number of cases over time in different countries and saying, “If this doesn’t shake us out of our slumber, what will?”

This is scientism, pure and simple, even if it’s not on the nose: pointing to case trends alone isn’t going to solve anything, especially not in the face of the sort of significant, demographic-wide yearning for a ‘new normal’, or in fact any kind of normal, instead of more and more upheavals. In fact, consider the fact that for most of 2020, most poor people in India believed that if the novel coronavirus had an infection fatality rate of just 1%, it was no big whoop, and that they would continue going to work and eke out a living. Let’s be clear, this is perfectly reasonable. The idea of letting the virus take its course through the population went sideways in Sweden, but in India, if something has a 1% chance of getting you really sick – or even killing you – it’s tragically the case that it quickly falls down a long list of threats, most of which are often much more lethal, beginning, in too many parts of the country, with breathing the air around you or drinking the water that’s available to you.

To repeat in this context exhortations based solely on graphs printed in English and shared on Twitter that rapidly rising case-loads elsewhere on the planet should suffice to nudge us out of the Indian subcontinent’s collective torpor is a deference to facts that, I’m very tempted to say, understand only 1% of what is going on. Even if these exhortations are directed at state leaders and government officials, they are really misdirected: as I have written before in the context of Anthony Fauci’s senseless interview responses, if the government hasn’t done something that’s obvious to everyone, the reason just can’t be that it hasn’t seen the chart or the numbers you’ve seen to reach your conclusions. The only way such statements could make some sense is if they are intended to galvanise public opinion, but even then, I’m not convinced.

And seeing these scientists do what they do strikes me that just as much as we’d like to encourage scientists to communicate science as often as is possible, there may be virtue in casting science communication as much in terms of what it does as what it doesn’t. For example, as the number of cases due to the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus is increasing in different parts of the world, socially responsible science communication requires us to not stop at pointing at graphs but to continue to reflect on and articulate how much – or how little – the greater transmissibility of the variant means in and of itself. And in my view, not doing this would just be socially anti-responsible communication: sticking to the science, and accomplishing little overall.

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