With the arrival of Omicron or B.1.1.529, what scientists are calling it “most heavily” mutated version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus yet, we are in for high alert and a protracted closure until new measures such as vaccines are discovered to stem or control the variant.

Besides warning from the scientific communities, we don’t yet know how big a threat it poses. What we know however is that Omicron, first reported to WHO from South Africa on 24 November 2021, has the potential to spread very quickly and renders vaccines less effective. In response, many countries have already started banning travel from countries such as South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. 

Thanks to stringent measures and protocols in place, Bhutan has dealt with the Covid-19 infections well. For a very long while now we have not had any Covid-19 positive case. But “some level” of comfort we had from the vaccination of close to 80 percent of the eligible population now looks like wholly irrelevant. With this new virus variant, we are being told that there are higher risks of reinfection.

What is very complicated and dangerous at this early stage of discovery is that there is a gaping absence of “definitive facts” about the variant. In such a situation, natural human response is either to underact or overact. Both can have devastating consequences.

What needs bearing in mind is that winter is flu season in the northern hemisphere, an ideal condition for the influenza virus to transmit. For Bhutan, opening the borders means throwing ourselves open to transmission risks from India. Our concern is that if this variant escalates and is introduced in India, it can spread like wildfire and it won’t be long before we have positive cases in the country.

Because of the fast-spreading nature of the variant lack of adequate knowledge about it, there is every chance that our health system and response mechanisms will be overwhelmed.

So, what do we do? How do we respond to this formidable challenge?

In these uncertain and testing times, our best strategy would be to revert to protocols and measures that stood us in good stead so far. Mask requirement, physical distancing and hand hygiene, among others, should be practised more stringently. Beefing up the efforts to protect ourselves from the virus should be given extra importance.