Omicron Image Credit: Gulf News

Omi who? They mean the letter in the Greek alphabet?

When the news broke, it darted around one’s mind, first in disbelief, then in shock and finally in gloom.

No, not true. Not again, no way, not now, not after having endured the unspeakable ravages of Covid-19, a virus that has, as it journeyed around the world, across continents and oceans, killed well over 5 million people and upended the workings of our quotidian lives.

Not so soon after the mandated lockdowns, the school closures, the travel restrictions, the social distancing and, of course, the prospect of death looming large, with the Grim Reaper lurking around every corner we turned outside the seemingly safe confines of our homes. Not so soon after we started feeling that things were somewhat normal again.

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But, alas, it is true, very true that a new, more variant of Covid-19, first detected in South Africa and now named Omicron, is on the loose.

To be sure, several variants of Covid-19 had popped up in recent months, which fuelled a summer surge in the US, Europe and elsewhere around the world, but most of them never amounted to much. Omicron, however, which scientists have already taken to calling ‘variant of concern’, is expected to present the world community with a more daunting challenge than its predecessors. And it is being taken seriously indeed.

Last week, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, an institution not given to hype, said that “there’s a high to very high risk” that Omicron, which has already hit half a dozen countries stretching from Australia to Botswana and Hong Kong to Canada, will spread in Europe.

And in an effort to calm the nation, as federal officials braced for the first case to be detected in the US, President Joe Biden, speaking from the White House on Monday, said that Omicron is “a cause for concern, not a cause for worry”, adding that “sooner or later we’re going to see cases of this new virus here in the United States [but] we have more tools to fight it than we’ve ever had before”.

A chord in universal archetype

The thing about epidemics, what makes them hit a chord in our universal archetype, is that, unlike natural disasters, say, earthquakes, famines, floods and hurricanes, where poor people are often the most vulnerable to the death and destruction that ensue — consider here Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005, and the unusually heavy rains that displaced at least 1.5 million people in India and Bangladesh in 2017 — is that it is, shall we say, truly democratic.

The virus unleashed during a pandemic is a force of nature that considers all men, regardless of their race, nationality, ethnicity, class and gender, to be created equal, and equally worthy of retribution. But a force of nature does not exact seemingly malignant retribution on us for the mere thrill of exacting retribution.

Go back to human history and you see how nature — the outward manifestation of God’s omniscience — always made good the havoc it wrought on men, and how it always compensated them for the agonies they had had to endure.

Alternative paradigms

Consider, that is, how throughout that history, monumental catastrophes — say, the Black Death of 1346-1353, which caused the death of 200 million people, and the Great Influenza, which killed upward of 50 million — always acted as a tension-producing agent that propelled societies to think anew of themselves, to imagine alternative paradigms and to thrust themselves beyond their fixed meaning.

Social psychologists, along at times with political philosophers, have over the years addressed themselves to that very issue, tirelessly exploring the correlation between crisis and opportunity in our lives — lives lived by us as individuals or collectively as communities.

In an intriguing article in the New York Times last week, with the equally intriguing title, Could Covid Lead to Progress?, Steven Johnson suggested that mass tragedies sometimes have rewarding consequences. He wrote: “There are many examples of mass tragedies that inspired meaningful reform in human progress that, in the end, most likely saved more lives than the original tragedy claimed”.

He cites as an example the case of how the deadly 1845 cholera epidemic in London enabled the English physician John Snow, today considered the founder of modern epidemiology, to show that cholera was a disease caused by contaminated water, even though the bacterium itself had not been identified yet. Thus, as Johnson argued, Snow’s insight probably prevented tens of thousands of deaths in the decades that followed.

Human progress has never been made by happy, contented people in happy contented times, but by restless souls in times of crisis. Everything that happens in our world is willed by God’s nature and, we are told in our Holy Texts, happens for a benign reason. We are thus enjoined against spurning it.

In Sura 2, Verse 26, for example, we read in the Quran: “It could be that you will abhor something when it may be beneficial to you”. And I interpret that to mean that, in the dialectic of His wisdom, it is only after human beings have shouldered the weight of grief will they appreciate the experience of joy — in short, that God had a benign intent for making us suffer through adversity.

That kind of divine wisdom is fine by me in these dangerous times.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile