“United we stand, divided we fall.”
It’s been a long two years. I know that I’m not alone in feeling disheartened at the news of the latest coronavirus variant, Omicron, which has prompted new travel bans and border closures as it makes its way from country to country. And rightfully so: The World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed the risk it poses “very high.” Misinformation continues to spread, vaccine apartheid continues to plague the world, and divisive debates about personal liberties continue to unfold. Amidst it all, a common question emerges: Where do we go from here?
Before we can (attempt to) answer that question, I’d like to explore another: What exactly is a virus? For starters, they are the most common organism on Earth. There are estimated to be 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of them, and if they were all lined up, they would extend across our entire galaxy, per a study published in Nature Review Microbiology. According to Lotti Tajouri, Associate Professor of Genomics and Molecular Biology at Bond University, viruses are regarded as “non-living” because they require other organisms to survive and reproduce—nature’s very own variety of zombism.
So, how do viruses spread and mutate? According to Tajouri, a virus will cloak itself in a particle called a virion that allows it to survive a certain amount of time outside of a cell in order to find a host. When it does, the virion uses the proteins on its surface to penetrate the host cell. Once this happens, the virus “hacks” the host to produce more virions, eventually killing the cell and moving on to infect more cells. In this process, mistranslations akin to copying errors can occur, causing imperfect clones to emerge—also known as mutations. The longer a virus is able to spread and divide, the more room there is for mutations to occur.
COVID-19 vaccines train the immune system to attack the virus’s spiky surface proteins to prevent or reduce the severity of infection, which is why health experts are consistent in urging vaccination. As Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the president’s top medical advisor, explained in a briefing on Wednesday: “The more protections you get with vaccines, the less likelihood a virus has to [circulate], the less likelihood a virus has to mutate, the less likely you’re going to get a variant.” And while we don’t know how effective the current vaccines are against Omicron, they may still provide protection against severe infection and death.
I believe in vaccination because I believe in listening to and trusting experts whose job it is to monitor these issues, especially in the age of social media and misinformation. I wrestle with the idea of telling others what to do with their bodies because I want to respect people’s individual choices. But is a choice really individual when it impacts the health and safety of the whole? If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we’re all part of the same body—and that division gets us nowhere. So, rather than point fingers at others, I will continue to point them toward the science.
If that doesn’t work, we may need more systemic solutions. Some countries are beginning to test out increased regulation for unvaccinated people. Germany, for one, announced a lockdown for unvaccinated people to stop rising case levels. Singapore will no longer cover the medical costs of COVID-19 treatment for people who have chosen not to be vaccinated. Per their Ministry of Health: “Unvaccinated persons make up a sizable majority of those who require intensive inpatient care, and disproportionately contribute to the strain on our health care resources.”
Just as with the climate crisis, the pandemic requires unified collective action. It requires listening to experts and the science. We can take as many personal steps toward minimizing ecocide as humanly possible, but unless those 100 companies that are responsible for 71% of global emissions stop, they won’t be enough. Every crisis we now face seems to be a variant of the same divisive mindset that has prioritized the individual over the collective. And the answer to all of them is the same: We need to act as one. After all, viruses mutate by misinformation—and they spread by division.