By Michael Jarvis, UK Correspondent
The new year 2022 has dawned with the COVID-19 pandemic set to dominate the global news agenda for the year ahead.
In the face of the rampaging Omicron strain of the virus, there is nevertheless cautious optimism by medical experts that serious infections could possibly wane this year.
They attribute this to growing evidence which suggests that this variant might be less severe than Delta and Alpha strains which have proven to be most problematic.
However, the WHO says it is still monitoring whether disease from Omicron is as severe as previous variants such as Delta,stating that at this time the available data is still “uncertain”.
“2022 must be the end of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus, speaking at the organisation’s final 2021 COVID-19 briefing.
He said WHO projections show that vaccine supplies should be sufficient to vaccinate the entire global adult population and to give boosters to high-risk populations by the first quarter of 2022.
According to the WHO head, the major remaining challenges are “implementing all the tools effectively” and notably, “taking care of equity.”
“Unless we vaccinated the whole world, I don’t think we can end this pandemic,” the WHO Director General concluded.
But Omicron is not the only COVID-19 variant occupying the attention of WHO and other global health experts.
With a global emphasis on vaccinations, especially on booster doses to combat Omicron, there is mounting concern that this variant and others which may emerge could evade present vaccines.
While some companies are already manufacturing Omicron-variant doses, the WHO’s Deputy Director Mike Ryan has warned that these may not be effective against other circulating strains.
Another challenge for governments especially is the growing economic impact of the continuing pandemic.
Even against the background that Omicron might be less severe than previously feared, the rate at which it is spreading and forcing even uninfected people into preventive isolation.
This is already impacting workforces across the world, particularly in essential public services including healthcare, education, security and in business.
In the UK, contingency plans are being drawn up over fears a quarter of public sector workers could be absent due to the Omicron wave of COVID infections.
The government is testing preparations for a possible worst-case scenario as daily coronavirus numbers continue to hit record levels.
All government departments are also renewing their efforts to make sure that key workers get their COVID booster jabs to increase protection against the surging Omicron variant.
It follows fears that large numbers of Britons could be forced to isolate in the early weeks of 2022, causing chaos in public services, on transport networks, and putting further pressure on NHS staffing levels.
Data from the United Kingdom Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows people who are unvaccinated are up to eight times more likely to be admitted to hospital than those who are fully jabbed.
The emergence of Omicron sparked an acceleration of the roll-out over the festive season, and more than 1.6 million people received their booster dose in the final week of 2021.
The picture from the United States is equally concerning with the US leading the world in the daily average number of new deaths reported, accounting for one in every 5 deaths reported worldwide each day.
The economy is also being impacted with large swathes of the workforce being sidelined into isolation or working from home with the consequential impact on turnover and downstream economic effects from in-country trade to exports.
The knock-on effect is already being felt in the global trade network, with import-dependent countries in the Caribbean/Latin America region - including Cayman - risking being affected by supply chain shortages.
One noted effect already is in the cruise sector, now slowly emerging from a crippling shutdown over the past two years.
Regional countries which rely on cruise tourism which have just started welcoming back cruises are now faced with the tough choice of once again curtailing that sector of their tourism industry in the wake of COVID-19 outbreaks on several ships calling at regional destinations.
That is further compounded by a new advisory from the US Centres For Disease Control (CDC) cautioning Americans against taking cruises at this time.
Cayman recently took proactive active, even ahead of the CDC notification, to cancel a planned cruise ship visit intended to test local protocols for restarting that sector of the tourism industry.
An uptick in Omicron cases among both travellers and incidents of community spread are being observed across the Caribbean, some already being associated with year-end carnival and other festive celebrations attracting large crowds.
Most countries in the region and elsewhere still have strict protocols in place although some have been relaxed as countries try to balance public health safety measures with keeping their economies intact.
In a recent statement, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said: “As countries begin to emerge from the most acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, policy makers and citizens need tools to monitor efforts to revive economic activity… and build back better.”