2021: A year of unpalatable choices

Governing, it is said, is the art of compromise, of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, of settling for the next best. In few years, it would seem, has compromise as an art of governing looked so unpalatable than in 2021. 

Turn the clock back a little. At the end of 2020, the world prayed that the coming year would be better, that 2020 was a historically accursed year. Surely things would look up in 2021, we all thought, for what could be worse? 

And what we came to see was this: more people worldwide died from the pandemic in 2021 than in 2020 — and far more in Thailand. New variants, each more transmissible than the previous, wrecked havoc on any hopes of economic recovery. Thailand tried to delay the inevitable, and eventually succumbed to as long a period of restrictions as last year. In this context, what could compromise mean? What, in such a situation, does the next best even look like, when the perfect is clearly unattainable? 

It meant ministers having to decide how to balance a fragile economy and a public health emergency — and then having to risk both. It meant having to choose whether and how long to shutter businesses that could no longer endure another lockdown, or having to decide which death rate from the pandemic that the government would find acceptable. 

Make no mistake: 2021 was a hard year for policymakers at all levels. When young children say they wish to be presidents and prime ministers, these are not the choices they imagine having to make once in the seat of power. If nothing else, this was a year where one could truly recognize the pains and perils of holding power.

And at this point, we still do not know whether 2022 would also be a year of such uncomfortable choices as well. It is certainly difficult to have the same optimism as the end of 2020, now that we know with certainty that vaccines are not a panacea, and that “living with Covid-19” is a more difficult task than just throwing up our arms and proclaiming its endemicity. 

Indeed, as a keen enthusiast of classical history, Greek names and words have always been a source of interest to me. So it is with a fair level of dismay that my introduction to the Greek alphabet has come in the form of the forced and unending march of increasingly dangerous variants in a deadly pandemic. Omicron was the latest unwelcome addition. 

And only if there were an Oracle of Delphi who could tell us when the end to all this will come! 

This variant has already sent case numbers back into the stratosphere in the United States and much of Europe, scuttled strategies worldwide to “live normally with Covid-19,” and led to the return of international travel bans. It has also forced Thailand to temporarily suspend the “Test & Go” scheme, which allowed people to enter the kingdom quarantine-free save for a short period waiting for a Covid test result. It all leads to quite a disconcerting sense of deja vu, and not for the first time.

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk argued that omicron is the beginning of the end — not necessarily because the pandemic is done with us, but mentally society at large is done with the pandemic. “No matter the severity of the variant,” Mounk writes, “the appetite for shutdowns or other large-scale social interventions simply isn’t there.”

This is true, to an extent. But just because the appetite for large-scale interventions is absent does not mean rejecting common sense mitigation measures. Indeed, they may be the only path towards avoiding the unpalatable choices of 2021.

Let us take a case in point: I concur with the assessment made by our editor in chief Cod Satrusayang, for example, that the Prayut administration’s decision to temporarily suspend test & go was ultimately the right thing to do. 

Data from the United Kingdom suggests that those who are infected by Omicron are less likely to require hospitalization, but its markedly higher rate of transmissibility can still cancel out that effect. A smaller percentage of an extremely high number, after all, is still a very big number, and the last thing we want to see is overflowing hospitals and economically ruinous lockdowns. Thailand’s porous borders mitigate the effectiveness of these measures, but they do buy us time.

In the meantime, the government must prepare the groundwork for making sure 2022 does not have to be a year of ugly decisions: finishing off Thailand’s 2-dose vaccination campaign, ramping up third doses and preparing hospitals for a surge in cases.

The bottom line is this: the end of the pandemic is not yet upon us. We are, as some put it, “vaxxed but still vexxed.” Coronavirus is not, as health minister Anutin Charnvirakul put it, a “mediocre disease.” We will still have compromises to make in the coming year. 

But this does not mean, of course, that we cannot hold any optimism, that we have to accept that 2022 will be a repetition of 2021. The choices we have to make, while still weighty, will hopefully be far less uncomfortable than the ones we have seen thus far. We have both the experience of this year and an arsenal of public health tools that can be deployed.

Indeed, if nothing else, the government’s quick actions on omicron showed that lessons has been learned from the Songkran surge. As Bill Gates has written, “The world is better prepared to tackle potentially bad variants than at any other point in the pandemic so far.”

And so let us enter the new year with a dose of optimism — a tempered optimism — but optimism all the same.

COVID-19

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