Blog Feed

The Omicron Deception: BA.1’s Impact on the United States

President Joe Biden meets with the COVID-19 Response Team on the latest developments on the omicron variant, Tuesday, January 4, 2022 in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Erin Scott)

Note: This post was updated on 7/21 and 7/28/22 to include hospitalization data spanning a longer chronological range and national level excess mortality estimates.

In November of 2021, the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was discovered in the Gauteng region of South Africa. Early research painted a worrying picture. It was reportedly four times more contagious than the already highly transmissible Delta variant and was better at evading immunity, resulting in a marked decrease in the effectiveness of existing vaccines. There was an additional discovery: the variant was less likely to cause serious infection in lung tissue, raising the possibility of milder illness and lower rates of hospitalization. Researchers were quick to point out this wasn’t evidence of the virus evolving to become less severe (Omicron didn’t evolve from Delta) or that the variant didn’t present a serious threat. Imperial College London’s Neil Ferguson stated that “our analysis shows evidence of a moderate reduction in the risk of hospitalization associated with Omicron variant compared with the Delta variant….However, this appears to be offset by the reduced efficacy of vaccines against infection with the Omicron variant.” The University of Hong Kong’s Dr. Michael Chan Chi-wai, a faculty member involved in one of the aforementioned studies that indicated Omicron’s propensity for less severe respiratory infection, noted that “the severity of disease in humans is not determined only by virus replication but also by the host immune response to the infection.” He warned that Omicron could “cause more severe disease and death simply by spreading much faster, even though the lung infection appears not as bad.”

The mischaracterization of SARS-CoV-2 Omicron as a mild pathogen took hold in the greater public imagination, aggravated by some healthcare professionals promoting oversimplified explanations of “mild Omicron” with misleading statements about the “decoupling” of cases and hospitalizations and SARS-CoV-2’s transition to being an “endemic” virus. Additionally, many public health measures that had been put in place to blunt the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 were gone by the end of 2021. 2022 began with massive spikes in Omicron-driven COVID-19 infection erupting around the world, with one of the worst occurring in the United States (Fig 1). On January 10th, 1.3 million new cases were recorded in the US, with Omicron’s BA.1 sublineage being the dominant strain (accounting for more than 90% of sequenced infections.) The surge ended almost as quickly as it started, with daily caseloads much lower by early March than they had been at its beginning in late December.

Figure 1

During the BA.1 wave, deaths as a percentage of cases were a fraction of that seen in waves driven by prior variants. To describe the mortality that resulted from the outbreak in such abstract mathematical terms, however, is misleading. Because of Omicron’s greatly increased transmissibility, much more of the population was infected. Thus, the amount of death caused by the BA.1 surge was substantial, regardless of the strain’s decreased pathogenicity. Official COVID-19 mortality figures (Fig. 2) reflect this, but the limitations of this data are well known. Excess mortality estimates (Fig. 3) show that while the BA.1 wave was likely less deadly than all prior major surges, it was still highly lethal and comparable to the former*. Similarly, despite initial predictions of a decreased risk of hospitalization, the number of people hospitalized by BA.1 (Fig. 4) surpassed the Fall 2020/winter 2021 and Delta waves, being roughly 150% higher than the latter. More than 154,000 Americans were hospitalized nationwide as of January 19th 2022, almost entirely by a variant still widely being referred to as “mild.” Further analyzing hospitalization data, the number of these patients requiring intensive care was more or less equal to that of the Delta wave and marginally less than that of the 2020/2021 wave.

Figure 2
Figure 3
Figure 4 (Source: The New York Times)

These data reveal the true severity of BA.1’s impact in the United States. Although the surge began in late December, the country’s cumulative COVID-19 death toll increased by more than 120,000 between January and March alone. By comparison, a particularly virulent seasonal flu can result in around 52,000 deaths. A recent study found excess deaths in Massachusetts were higher during the BA.1 wave than the Delta wave. Beyond mortality, there’s the uncalculated figure of how many Americans have sustained permanent injury, become disabled and joined the ranks of “long COVID” sufferers as a result of BA.1 infection. As disturbing as the effects of the BA.1 wave were, the government’s subsequent response was more unsettling. Funding for federal pandemic aid has been cut and top ranking officials have made the dubious claim that the most severe stage of the pandemic is over. The US is already experiencing another Omicron-driven surge, with the BA.5 sublineage (as of the publishing of this post) being the dominant strain. Preliminary data suggests it may have evolved to cause more severe disease. In the face of it all, numerous individuals and entities (the CDC included) carry on minimizing the continued threat of this virus.

*Alternatively, an estimate of excess mortality during the pandemic by The Economist found higher levels during the BA.1 wave than the Spring 2020 or Delta surges. Whichever measure is ultimately more accurate, the fundamental assertion that BA.1 caused a considerable number of fatalities in the US remains true.

Special thanks to Jeoffry B. Gordon, MD, MPH for his assistance during the drafting of this piece.

Good riddance to Boris the Butcher

The abysmal and deadly failures of the Johnson government’s COVID-19 response have been extensively documented, with the UK’s death toll (now more than 180,000) the highest in Europe second only to Russia. I won’t be analyzing them in this post. Instead, with Johnson having officially confirmed his resignation, I want to spotlight a statement he made before the chaos of the pandemic kicked off in full that made it clear what his governing philosophy and priorities were. Anyone who heard it should have fully expected what was to come.

Prior to the carnage of Spring and Autumn or his blunt pronouncement-cum-self-fulfilling prophecy in March that “many more families will lose loved ones before their time,” Johnson gave a speech at London’s Old Royal Naval College three days after the finalization of Brexit. It was a twenty-eight minute hubristic declaration of the UK’s commitment to global capitalism and why the country, now freed from the shackles of EU membership, was apparently destined to become an economic superpower. What would become the speech’s defining moment came six minutes in when Johnson said the following:

[When] we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other. And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.

There it was, stated unambiguously, albeit dressed up in Johnson’s theatrical verbiage: the health of Britain’s private sector came first. The health of its public faced with the threat from a deadly novel virus came second (more accurately, probably tenth or twelfth.) Johnson painted neoliberalism as the most progressive and liberating force on earth, and himself as the valiant world leader ready to defend it with every ounce of strength he had.

This was also, appropriately enough, the first time Johnson had mentioned SARS-CoV-2 publicly. During his public address earlier today, he touted “getting us all through the pandemic, delivering the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe, the fastest exit from lockdown” among his stellar achievements as PM. It was a sick joke, coming from the man who made clear early on that he valued economic stability far more than human life. He stands atop not a legacy of effective leadership, but a mountain of corpses.

Good riddance to him and a preemptive “up yours” to the similarly unprincipled goon who’ll replace him.

Ed Yong on what Hospitalization Data Misses

A lab technician at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, CA tends to a patient, March 2022. (Photo: Mario Tama)

In his latest piece in The Atlantic, Ed Yong details why the hospitalization statistics that the CDC now largely relies on as a guide for what decisions individuals and policymakers should make re: COVID-19 are offering an incomplete picture and therefore are inadequate as a guiding metric. An excerpt:

America’s current pandemic strategy is predicated on the assumption that people can move on from COVID, trusting that the health-care system will be ready to hold the line. But that assumption is a fiction. Much of the system is still intolerably stressed, even in moments of apparent reprieve. And the CDC’s community guidelines are set such that by the time preventive actions are triggered, high levels of sickness and death will be locked in for the near future. For many health-care workers, their mental health and even their commitment to medicine are balanced on a precipice; any further surges will tip more of them over. “I feel like I’m holding on by a thread,” Marina Del Rios, an emergency physician at the University of Iowa, told me. “Every time I hear a new subvariant is coming along, I think: Okay, here we go.

False Prophets of Hope: A Response to the Downplaying of COVID-19’s Continued Threat

Anthony Fauci at a briefing by the White House COVID-19 Response Team in December of 2021. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker)

Yesterday, during an interview on the PBS NewsHour, Anthony Fauci declared the United States to be “out of the pandemic phase [of SARS-CoV-2.]” Coming from the man who, in March of 2020, said “the U.S. ‘should be overly aggressive and get criticized for overreacting” to COVID-19,'” and as recently as March of this year was warning that the return of strict mitigation efforts could be immanent due to the threat of the Omicron BA.2 subvariant, it was an incredible, baffling and obviously premature assessment. Fauci backtracked almost immediately, but it was too late. His reply to Judy Woodruff was unambiguously indicative of an ongoing trend amongst governments around the world to downplay the persistent danger of the pandemic via claims that SARS-CoV-2 is now a “manageable” and “endemic” pathogen that humanity simply needs to “learn to live with.” Additionally (and granted, it’s been present throughout the pandemic,) this includes a distinctly neoliberal emphasis of the onus of risk assessment being on the individual and minimizing state intervention.

For a while now, I’ve wanted to write a comprehensive piece on this precise issue. For multiple reasons, I haven’t. Even in the wake of this year’s Omicron BA.1 surge, during which more than a hundred thousand Americans died and thousands were hospitalized due to the essentially unimpeded spread of a “milder” variant, I didn’t think I had anything substantive to add to the existing discourse. After hearing Fauci’s remark last night, though, I felt compelled to respond promptly in some fashion. Rather than begin the lengthy process that would entail writing my own rebuke, I’m instead providing several links to content that, in aggregate, seriously challenges the disingenuously sanguine framing of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Out of all the above commentary and analysis, the conclusion of Bruce Y. Lee’s article summarizes the current situation as well as any other:

Sure, some politicians and businesses may want things to appear as “normal” as possible as soon as possible. The illusion of complete normality could prompt people to spend more and re-elect current politicians for office. Plus, Covid-19 precautions require some up front spending and investment….The rush to return to normal, whatever “normal” means, and the repeated premature relaxation of Covid-19 precautions has continued to be remarkably short-sighted. The SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t really care what politicians and business leaders say. Failing to maintain proper Covid-19 precautions such as face mask use, social distancing, and Covid-19 vaccination could further extend the pandemic and increase the negative impact of the SARS-CoV-2. This is especially true with the more contagious BA.2 Omicron subvariant spreading. The CDC Covid-19 Community Levels map alone may have you seeing green as in low risk, go, go, go, and perhaps even mo’ money. But that could end up being an “off-color” conclusion.

Meanwhile, in the UK…

Protesters outside UK Labour’s headquarters in London, July 20th 2021. (Photo: Tayfun Şalcı)

This was posted to r/LabourUK today (and, unsurprisingly, eventually deleted by mods. Thank God for the Internet Archive.) It seems as straightforward and concise a summary of the most salient critiques of Labour under Starmer you’ll find anywhere. Some of the passages that stick with me the most:

A while ago I finally chucked in my membership. The final straw which broke the camel’s back being Starmer unwilling to condemn the evil Saudi takeover of Newcastle, whilst prattling on about James Bond needing to be female….

My mrs works in a care home. She likes Burnham, is pro armed forces, centre left on most issues, left leaning on nationalisation, LGBT and trade union rights, a bit centre right on crime, and is exactly the sort of person Labour NEED as a minimum just to hold onto seats let alone to win. So when she sees the party is resorting to attacking unions, putting the likes of Cooper (who’s WCA brutalised the disabled – people she has worked with for years – she has seen the terror they have been subjected to by Atos / DWP thugs) in key positions, attempts to edge out people like Rayner (who are like my mrs – northern and working class), and shifting the sort of soft left figures out of key positions, she realises the party is no longer for her. She, like I wanted an Attlee style reset of everything – we are sick to death of having to work through this virus, lose colleagues to it and get treated like shit. Regardless of whether this new variant is a relatively harmless storm in a teacup or something so deadly it will end up slaughtering vast swathes of the population, she (and I) will still have to work through it. Policies and figures who appease Westminster based political pundits don’t cut it.

If Starmer was genuinely interested in unity, the soft left would not be being purged from key positions, as they are literally the “centre” of the fucking party. Rayner herself is bang in the middle of the party and has great support from much of the base. Alienating her shows the direction of the party is simply to become some drippy form of market liberalism coupled with establishment politics. Nor would he be tolerating stupid attacks on unions, when given the state of the country, unions are more important than ever.

“Why Socialism?” added to the Reformist Bibliography

Einstein in 1950. (Photo: AFP)

Albert Einstein’s seminal 1949 essay, originally published in Monthly Review, is now accessible in PDF form via the bibliography. The piece, far from being an empty call to revolution or a milquetoast defense of welfare capitalism in the guise of a nominal “socialism,” is one of the most sober and concise defenses of democratic socialism ever written. In relatively few words, the German physicist puts forth an unsparing indictment of capitalism and argues in favor of the need for social and economic transformation.

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of [man’s suffering.] We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production—that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods—may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.

His conclusion, in favor of a planned economy, additionally confronts the dilemma of preventing tyranny.

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate [society’s] grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals….Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?

Einstein’s essay offers both a solid explanation of socialism’s basic utility while avoiding any overly didactic prescriptions for its realization. Einstein ends his piece with a call for discourse. Seven decades on, the left is bogged down in unproductive and frequently bad faith discourse. A revisiting of pieces like Why Not Socialism? more often could break the logjam.

“To pursue only power is to deny our reason for being.” Ed Broadbent at 85

Broadbent (MP for Oshawa-Whitby at the time) speaking in the House of Commons in 1974 alongside Tommy Douglas. (Photo: The Canadian Press)

Ed Broadbent, former leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, founder of the Broadbent Institute and enduring presence on the Canadian left, turns eighty-five years old today. In his two decade political career and three decades as an academic and public intellectual, Broadbent has consistently remained one of the most ardent and persuasive advocates of postwar social democracy (eschewing the third way liberalism of the 1990s and 2000s). In the midst of a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of scores of senior citizens (including fellow leftist academic Leo Panitch), Broadbent’s survival is an ember of hope in a world of bleak prospects, both medical and political.

A transcript of Broadbent’s 2013 address at Ryerson University, along with two videos featuring him, are already part of the social democratic bibliography. Today, I’m posting a recording of said speech as well as adding the link to its entry.

Happy birthday, Ed. Here’s to (hopefully) quite a few more.

Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear

Graffiti in Athens, December 2008.

The expressions of relief at the immanent end of 2020 are disturbingly indicative of a widespread shortsightedness. The sentiment is typically motivated by an overwhelming catharsis triggered by the symbolic closing of a catastrophic and traumatic period, the Sisyphean expectation that COVID-19 vaccines will return the world to “normal” within the year or a mixture of both.

During the 2008 riots in Greece, “Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear” was a phrase frequently rendered in graffiti (a photo of it later went viral.) This sarcastic proclamation could hardly be better suited to the present moment. 2021 presents tremendous uncertainty and threat. The pandemic, currently at its most severe thus far in terms of both caseloads and deaths, will potentially worsen in the New Year. Anthony Fauci, quite optimistically, predicted that “normality” in the U.S. could return by fall of 2021. This would be heavily reliant on the timely implementation of vaccinations and continued mitigation efforts. As it stands, vaccinations in the U.S. are woefully behind schedule and even the simplest social distancing measures continue to be politicized and met with resistance.

The incoming Biden-Harris administration promises little more than milquetoast centrism. Biden himself insinuated he would veto Medicare for All legislation and his platform is mostly comprised of weak incrementalist policies with a few ambitious outliers like his college tuition subsidy plan along with his stated intent to bring supply chains back to the U.S. The degree to which he will actually pursue any of these measures (and the degree to which he would actually succeed) is anyone’s guess.

The catastrophe of 2020 presents, of course, a vast opportunity for leftist political reform and progress. COVID-19 has shone a floodlight on the savage inequality present in modern society. The private sector was no hero in the fight against the virus. Frequently, it was responsible and served as the justification for extreme negligence, re: resistance to much needed business closures, premature reopenings and widespread price gouging (all with disastrous results). Containment of the virus cannot be a green light for a simple return to the oblivious consumerism and recklessness of the pre-COVID-19 era. When a deadly airborne virus is no longer an omnipresent threat, widespread political mobilization is imperative.

2021 can be a continuation of the horrors of 2020 or the beginning of a paradigm shift of historic proportions. Whether it is the former or the latter will be determined by decisions made by the citizenry, carried out through civil society institutions and political organizations. In 1930, Antonio Gramsci wrote “that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” We are experiencing “morbid symptoms” in the most literal sense. We can, however, be midwives to the birth of the new if we choose to be.

UBI: A March down the Wrong Path (Part I)

Participants in the Basic Income March San Fransisco, October 2019.
(Photo: Basic Income March)

On the 19th of this month, an organization called The Income Movement will be sponsoring a series of worldwide marches and rallies in support of a universal basic income. Prior to COVID-19, the concept of a UBI had gained substantial visibility and popularity by the mid-2010’s after languishing in relative obscurity for decades. Notably, former 2020 Presidential candidate Andrew Yang made an unconditional $1k monthly stipend for all Americans the centerpiece of his platform. Post-COVID-19, UBI and temporary UBI-style programs have been touted as a means of ensuring financial stability amidst the pandemic and the economic chaos that has accompanied it. I’ve supported the latter (to an extent) but the promotion of UBI as a way of ameliorating poverty and its related social issues in general is riddled with problems. It is no coincidence that the last time basic income was this prominent in national discourse, it was being touted as a means of welfare reform (I.E. welfare elimination) by none other than Milton Friedman in the 1960’s and 70’s.

I’ll be writing in-depth about UBI in the post COVID-19 era at a later date. For now, I’m reposting an opinion piece I wrote last year about Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” which contains my basic critique of his favored implementation of the policy.