Coronavirus Briefing: Lessons from Omicron in South Africa


When it comes to the spread of the Omicron variant – and understanding it – South Africa is ahead of the rest of the world.

Since the variant was detected in November, coronavirus cases have skyrocketed. On Sunday, the country’s president tested positive for the virus. For an update on South Africa, I spoke to Lynsey Chutel, who covers Southern Africa for The Times.

What does the latest scientific data from South Africa tell us about Omicron?

There have been two big developments in recent days.

Last week, thanks to a study by the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, we now have an idea of ​​the performance of the Pfizer vaccine against the Omicron variant. Laboratory experiments have shown that, unfortunately, the antibodies produced in people vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine were less effective at preventing the spread of Omicron than other variants. On the positive side, the vaccine still seemed to show some protection against serious illnesses from Covid-19.

This seems to be a running theme in the coverage of the development of the new variant in South Africa: There has been a complex mix of alarming trends, like hospitalization of children, and then some really encouraging developments. For a few days, it seemed like we had reached the peak of Wave Four and – as is the nature of a pandemic in the 21st century – there were a lot of upbeat tweets. However, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases explained that this was likely due to a delay in notification. It’s a lesson in drawing hasty conclusions from daily data and a reminder of the constant chorus since the detection of the Omicron variant. It is still too early to draw any concrete conclusions.

What are hospitalizations across the country telling us about the severity of the illness caused by Omicron?

Hospitalizations provided some encouraging data, in that they did not track infections. In fact, Dr Michelle Groome, an epidemiologist at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, said she saw what she called a “disconnect” in the two curves. The infection curve therefore continues to rise and the hospital admissions curve is not increasing at the same rate. But again, the caveat is that it’s still very early in Wave Four.

What does the government do ?

South Africa’s National Coronavirus Command Council is meeting this week to discuss the best response to the increase in infections and whether the country needs to enter some kind of lockdown. Are we going to go back to a stricter curfew? Are we going to ban interprovincial travel? Will restaurants have to close earlier? Soon we’ll find out what kind of Christmas we’re having this year.

Another question is what to do with the vaccination warrants. Vaccines are still not mandatory, but we are seeing some companies, like Africa’s largest telecommunications company, starting to introduce vaccination mandates at its headquarters in Johannesburg. A big question is whether vaccination mandates will be instituted for large public spaces, such as malls and beaches.

How is the atmosphere?

I ventured into an outdoor market on Saturday afternoon, and most people go on with their lives because the weather is nice and it’s hard to stay indoors. When I was at the market, I noticed every two minutes that there was a message over the loudspeakers: “Masks are mandatory. Keep your masks on. Many people had sanitizer in their bags and people were constantly dispensing hand sanitizer. But I don’t think people are pushing people to stay home.

Why is that?

Due to a feeling of pandemic fatigue. And because the last time the restrictions were relaxed, we held an election. So it is very difficult for officials to tell South Africans that they have campaigned and organized rallies, but now we must resume containment. I just don’t see South Africans taking this very quietly.

There is also a real economic concern regarding the restrictions. Maybe more than in the past, I think, people are going to wonder if they are going to follow any new restrictions. After two years of the pandemic, our economy is in bad shape and unemployment is high. I think the question going forward is, will people follow the restrictions for their health or disobey them for the sake of their pockets?


When will businesses require employees to return to the office? After countless delays and failures, the new answer seems to be: we’ll get back to you.

“Return to office dates were like talismans,” writes my colleague Emma Goldberg. “The CEOs who put them in place seemed to have some form of power over the coming months. Then the dates were postponed, and postponed again. At some point, the spell was broken.

While visions of large-scale reopenings and mandatory returns did not materialize, RTO dates became more of a wishful thinking than a reliable commitment.

“The only dishonest companies are the ones that give employees certainty,” said Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor who advises dozens of general managers. “As a parent you can hide things from your kids, but as a CEO you can’t from adult employees reading the news. “

A survey of 238 executives, conducted in late August by research firm Gartner, found that two-thirds of organizations had delayed plans to return to the office due to news about the coronavirus variants. Apple, Ford, CNN, and Google are just a few of the employers who have announced postponements, and Lyft said the earliest date workers would be required to return to office was 2023.

New vernacular language of the workplace. Library credibility. Polywork. Zoombie. Emma also explored the new language of working life.



My world has shrunk to my husband and a few friends I talk to on the phone. Dinners with friends are a thing of the past. I fear losing my ability to interact with others. I’ve always been an introvert, but lately on the rare occasions I find myself with a friend, it seems I’ve lost the ability to converse. My world becomes silent.

– Elaine Turner, Denver

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