Here we go again. Just as the carols playlist had begun to spin and we could almost taste the Christmas Day turkey, another COVID variant arrives. It’s not the visitor we were expecting this festive season.
Now the sound of jingle bells is being drowned out by news reports about mutations and spike proteins. And the taste of succulent turkey and cranberry is giving way to the bitter taste of disappointment – again.
As Australian states scramble to decide whether to impose traveller quarantines or shut down borders, merrymakers prepare to cancel their long-awaited trips to see family and friends overseas or interstate. It’s also so familiar, but no less disappointing.
A friend of mine was planning to visit South Africa to see her family who had endured a particularly tumultuous year. Both her parents and grandparents had contracted COVID in their home and had been very ill. My friend’s visit, along with her children and husband, would no doubt have been the brightest spot for her parents in a bleak year.
Omicron feels like one more stab in the already shaky mental health of a world living on a pandemic tightrope.
My family had a somewhat comparable experience last year. We had booked airline tickets to visit other family members in Adelaide just after Christmas. But Sydney’s COVID outbreak hit and so we cancelled, much to the disappointment of my three daughters and their Adelaide grandparents.
We rebooked for June 2021 – and built up our trip as a “special birthday treat” for our almost-12-year-old. But then in June, the Delta variant outbreak hit and Sydney went into lockdown. I cancelled the flights.
After two cancellations, I just couldn’t bring myself to rebook again for this Christmas. I wasn’t sure I could handle the disappointment for our family and our Adelaide relatives if plans fell through again. And now, as we stare into the uniquely-spiked face of Omicron, I’m kind of glad I didn’t rebook. At the same time, I feel so grieved for those now living on tenterhooks as their Christmas plans hang in the balance.
For them, it’s not just one festive celebration on the line; it’s possibly two years or more of longing to connect with their loved ones. Omicron feels like one more stab in the already shaky mental health of a world living on a pandemic tightrope.
In an Everyday Christian around the same time last year, I lamented all that COVID-19 had taken away – from Christmas traditions to family members who died during a season when we could not be with them. There’s a sinking feeling in the depths of my being as I contemplate another Christmas marked by loss and sorrow – not so much for me, but for many of my friends and countless others.
As usual, the Holy Spirit is peeling away my narrow blinkers and calling me to see the bigger picture.
Meanwhile, as I begin to imagine a “worst-case scenario Christmas”, I am reminded that there is much more at stake for those in low-income countries. As Reverend Tim Costello reminded us this week, only a tiny proportion of people in low-income countries are vaccinated against COVID-19. In fact, of the 700 million vaccine doses administered globally earlier this year, richer countries received more than 87 per cent, while low-income countries just 0.2 per cent, according to a UN report. Now, as Omicron spreads throughout southern Africa, only 6 per cent of Africa’s 1.2 billion people have been vaccinated.
So while Australians may breathe a small sigh of relief that, in these early stages, the symptoms of Omicron do not seem to be as severe as previous COVID variants, those in low-income countries are facing an even more highly transmissible disease in a largely unvaccinated population with inadequate health systems. On top of this, they face the economic rub-in of global travel bans – as voiced by the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa: “The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic,” he said.
As usual, the Holy Spirit is peeling away my narrow blinkers and calling me to see the bigger picture – to look beyond myself, my friends and my own wealthy neighbourhood, to consider those most in need, and to stop being complicit in these inequalities by my lack of action and advocacy.
So while I am sure the Lord laments with us as we potentially face another sad Christmas, he is reminding me to lament even more for those whose lives and livelihoods are at threat. Perhaps the best gift I can give this Christmas is a donation to one of the many charities helping protect people in low-income countries from the impact of COVID-19.
As God reshapes my focus this Advent season, through the unlikely vessel of Omicron, the often-quoted words of Proverbs 19:21 come to mind: “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”