Pedestrians walk past a directional sign for a Covid-19 test centre on Hoe Street in Walthamstow, north London. Image Credit: AFP

Do you remember what you were doing last New Year’s Day? Chances are you were socially distanced, masked up, living under some sort of pandemic restrictions that curtailed your movements, and waiting for a shot of a coronavirus vaccine.

This New Year’s Day? Socially distanced, masked, living with some restrictions and waiting for a booster shot of a coronavirus vaccine … Yes, there is an uncomfortable familiarity as 2022 dawns, one that sees a third year of the pandemic upon us, and leaving many asking whether there is any end in sight to this long and weary road we have travelled.

But yes, there is good news.

While it might seem as if the advent of the Omicron variant is a step backwards, all of the scientific and empirical evidence suggests that it is not as serious the Alpha, Beta and Delta strains that have gone before, and that those who are infected with the variant that was first faced by doctors in South Africa in late November are not as severely affected as with the earlier variants — if you’re vaccinated, that is.

The problem with Omicron is that it’s far more contagious, with infection rates doubling every two or three days unless stringent measures are put in place to control its spread. Take the United Kingdom for example. Average daily infection rates there in early December were at a manageable 20-25,000 cases daily, mostly made up of the Delta strain. Scientists and researchers point out that Delta, which first emerged in parts of India in March, had the capability of inflicting serious illness very quickly.

The good news is that the vaccines that went into widespread use in the first quarter of 2021 were effective against it.

Throughout 2021, governments around the world had stressed the need for vaccination, with all of the scientific data showing that two doses of the vaccines developed in the UK, the US, China, Russia and elsewhere, and approved by the World Health Organisation or affiliated national regulatory agencies, were largely effective against the strains we have encountered so far.

So, when Omicron did develop in South Africa and quickly spread, there was a race on to see how deadly it was, how quickly it spread and, critically, to see whether the vaccines already in use were effective against the new variant.

Back to the UK and those infection rates. Now, about a month after the first cases of Omicron were confirmed in Britain, daily infection rates are at 200,000 levels — and that’s with the introduction of restrictions on gatherings and work-from-home rules in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Across Europe, there’s a similar pattern of infections. In France, 250,000 cases are being reported daily. In Germany, 100,000 daily isn’t unusual. And across much of Europe, governments have introduced travel and socialist curbs and targeted the non-vaccinated with exclusion orders that prevent them from taking part in many areas of “ordinary” life.

The measures, governments say, are now temporary and many residents feared a return to the dark days of lockdowns and not being able to move freely for months on end. So no, in that regard, 2022 won’t be like much of 2020 or parts of 2021.

It worth looking at the global figures and remind ourselves of just how far we’ve come since the emergence of Covid-19 from a market in Wuhan — and no, I don’t believe that there’s any evidence to suggest it was made in a lab, spread by 5G networks, can even be cured by injecting bleach, drinking gallons of orange juice or, for that matter, isn’t as bad as the flu. (Get real folks!)

So far, we are close to 300 million people around the world having been infected with at least one strain of Covid 19, and there have been nearly 5.5 million deaths.

Personally, I thought both figures would be higher and I admit that I haven’t looked at the rates for at least six months. I think that’s because I was more focused on protecting myself and my loved ones from coronavirus. That’s an attitude that has translated upwards into government level too, because while promises have been made to share excess vaccine doses with poorer countries, the delivery on the promises is falling through.

What is clear is that vaccines remain our best way out of this pandemic — just as it was in 2020 as we raced to develop them, in 2021 as we raced to roll them out, and in 2022 are we received booster jabs,

What is frustrating in all of this is that there are still people who believe that there is no need for a vaccine and that they’ll be all right if they catch the virus.

Sadly, critical care wards across Europe are full of young people who are at that threshold of life of death — simply because they “knew better” and did not take up the offer of a vaccine. And that underscores why now, as 2022 dawns, we seem to be back where we were last year and the year before.

But we are not. This is temporary, and the restrictions we see now are in place to temper the spread and ensure our health services aren’t overwhelmed with new cases — of the mostly unvaccinated.

The moral in all of this is that vaccines work, and not being vaccinated means placing a greater burden on those who have done so much for so many these past 22 months. Maybe if the unvaccinated who fall ill have to pay their own hospital costs, fewer might be so stubborn to refuse the jab.

Hopefully, most people will have decided as part of their New Year’s Day resolutions to get fully vaccinated and follow medical science. The last thing we need is to be in this same position come 2023.