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Why James Cleverly wants new relationship with Africa – BBC

By James LandaleDiplomatic correspondentPicture the scene. I am standing at the top of the Grand Staircase of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. It is perhaps the most architecturally imposing part of the building, a riot of Victorian excess. There are marble pillars, gilded panels and coffered ceilings. The walls are covered in poor quality murals telling the story of imperial success. The images of crude propaganda were designed to impress visiting potentates. And in the corner of one painting sits an astonishing image – a small, naked black boy holding a bowl of fruit up to his supposed colonial betters. The boy is there to represent Africa or rather – in the words of the now long-forgotten artist, Sigismund Goetze – “our obligations and possibilities in the dark continent”. Next to me is Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who is telling me how relaxed he is about the image, just down the corridor from his office. Yes, that Mr Cleverly – Britain’s first half-African foreign secretary, who, a few hours earlier hosted the presidents of Sierra Leone, where his mother came from, and South Africa. He told me that even one of his predecessors, Lord Curzon, thought the painting “outdated and jingoistic” when it was installed in 1921. And it does not, he said, reflect a modern Britain where he, the prime minister and home secretary are of African or Indian heritage. “I walked past (the painting) with a head of state of an African nation three hours ago,” he said. “Neither of us looked at it because we were too busy talking about the important stuff that we have got to talk about.”You can be hidebound by stuff like this or recognise it is what it is: this was a reflection of what happened in the past. But what I do is focus on the future. “If anyone had a right to feel maybe insulted or upset, I think it might be me, but it doesn’t worry me because we have got other fish to fry.”And those fish involve Britain engaging more closely with medium-sized powers in Africa and elsewhere. I have come to the Foreign Office to hear the germ of an idea that Mr Cleverly hopes will shape future British foreign policy. The thought is that Britain has for too long focused on nurturing its traditional allies and keeping a wary eye on its traditional competitors, while at the same time many countries in-between have been neglected. These are the African countries which might have failed to back the West’s defence of Ukraine in crucial United Nations votes. Countries which believe developed nations failed to support them sufficiently over Covid and climate change. Nations which perhaps look more to China and Russia for their investment and security. “As well as engaging with the countries that are already very influential on the world stage, we need to look at the partnerships of the future,” Mr Cleverly told me. He added the UK had to think about the African countries whose populations, economies and global influence are all growing.Mr Cleverly will not name these countries or even give a generic description. Officials talk privately of “middle-ground countries” or “middle powers”, but accept that no phrase is quite right. The idea, though, is about trying to find a new form of diplomatic and economic engagement based on mutual benefit, even if the detail – for now – has yet to be fully thought through. He said: “What it means is having a degree of thoughtfulness and sophistication to our engagement, where we’re engaging on issues of the future. Some of those are things that we talked about already – climate change, energy transition, that kind of stuff, but also things like health collaboration. “For example, one of the things we are discussing with the delegation from South Africa is pandemic preparedness. And that’s the kind of thing that is going to be increasingly important with countries in Africa.” Mr Cleverly does not pitch it as crudely as an attempt to push back against Russia and China, both of which have a significant presence in Africa, whether in the form of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group or China’s vast investment in infrastructure. But the foreign secretary accepts there is an ideological battle. “We recognise now there is a global competition of ideas,” he said. “So we really have got to have a willingness to sell our ideas and why the values that underpin our democracy are the values of our partners as well.”Mr Cleverly said the UK must not be a country only looking to “harvest” ideas, talent and resources from African countries.”We also have to be a valuable partner…. that is looking to invest back into our partner countries. It’s got to be a real partnership. I think that is an offer that we can put forward that some other countries are not putting forward.” But, I ask, might not some African countries question the reliability of the UK and other Western liberal democracies? And will not some say the UK has not helped Africa much on Covid or climate change, and is instead despatching asylum seekers to Rwanda while cutting its foreign aid?”We are still one of the largest aid donors in the world,” Mr Cleverly said. “Money is important. We absolutely recognise that and we look forward to the point where the UK economy has got back to the position where we go back up to 0.7% of GNI (gross national income) in terms of our overseas development assistance expenditure.”But it’s about recognising… there are really important partners around the world who are not as wealthy, whose economies are not in the same place as ours. But nevertheless, they absolutely have something to offer to both the UK and to the globe. “And so we need to have humility, we need to recognise that the only way that we’re going to be mutually successful is a mutually beneficial partnership.” It is a pitch that Mr Cleverly hopes will shape the UK’s relations with Africa for decades to come.More on this storyQatar has taken steps for gay fans’ safety – Cleverly1 day agoUK to begin talks over future of Chagos Islands3 November

James Cleverly

Picture the scene. I am standing at the top of the Grand Staircase of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. It is perhaps the most architecturally imposing part of the building, a riot of Victorian excess.

There are marble pillars, gilded panels and coffered ceilings. The walls are covered in poor quality murals telling the story of imperial success.

The images of crude propaganda were designed to impress visiting potentates. And in the corner of one painting sits an astonishing image – a small, naked black boy holding a bowl of fruit up to his supposed colonial betters.

The boy is there to represent Africa or rather – in the words of the now long-forgotten artist, Sigismund Goetze – “our obligations and possibilities in the dark continent”.

Close up of mural where a black boy is seen offering gifts to Britain

Next to me is Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who is telling me how relaxed he is about the image, just down the corridor from his office.

Yes, that Mr Cleverly – Britain’s first half-African foreign secretary, who, a few hours earlier hosted the presidents of Sierra Leone, where his mother came from, and South Africa.

He told me that even one of his predecessors, Lord Curzon, thought the painting “outdated and jingoistic” when it was installed in 1921. And it does not, he said, reflect a modern Britain where he, the prime minister and home secretary are of African or Indian heritage.

“I walked past (the painting) with a head of state of an African nation three hours ago,” he said.

“Neither of us looked at it because we were too busy talking about the important stuff that we have got to talk about.

“You can be hidebound by stuff like this or recognise it is what it is: this was a reflection of what happened in the past. But what I do is focus on the future.

“If anyone had a right to feel maybe insulted or upset, I think it might be me, but it doesn’t worry me because we have got other fish to fry.”

And those fish involve Britain engaging more closely with medium-sized powers in Africa and elsewhere.

I have come to the Foreign Office to hear the germ of an idea that Mr Cleverly hopes will shape future British foreign policy.

The thought is that Britain has for too long focused on nurturing its traditional allies and keeping a wary eye on its traditional competitors, while at the same time many countries in-between have been neglected.

These are the African countries which might have failed to back the West’s defence of Ukraine in crucial United Nations votes. Countries which believe developed nations failed to support them sufficiently over Covid and climate change. Nations which perhaps look more to China and Russia for their investment and security.

“As well as engaging with the countries that are already very influential on the world stage, we need to look at the partnerships of the future,” Mr Cleverly told me.

He added the UK had to think about the African countries whose populations, economies and global influence are all growing.

Mr Cleverly will not name these countries or even give a generic description. Officials talk privately of “middle-ground countries” or “middle powers”, but accept that no phrase is quite right.

The idea, though, is about trying to find a new form of diplomatic and economic engagement based on mutual benefit, even if the detail – for now – has yet to be fully thought through.

He said: “What it means is having a degree of thoughtfulness and sophistication to our engagement, where we’re engaging on issues of the future. Some of those are things that we talked about already – climate change, energy transition, that kind of stuff, but also things like health collaboration.

“For example, one of the things we are discussing with the delegation from South Africa is pandemic preparedness. And that’s the kind of thing that is going to be increasingly important with countries in Africa.”

James Cleverly speaking with the BBC's James Landale in front of the mural

Mr Cleverly does not pitch it as crudely as an attempt to push back against Russia and China, both of which have a significant presence in Africa, whether in the form of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group or China’s vast investment in infrastructure. But the foreign secretary accepts there is an ideological battle.

“We recognise now there is a global competition of ideas,” he said. “So we really have got to have a willingness to sell our ideas and why the values that underpin our democracy are the values of our partners as well.”

Mr Cleverly said the UK must not be a country only looking to “harvest” ideas, talent and resources from African countries.

“We also have to be a valuable partner…. that is looking to invest back into our partner countries. It’s got to be a real partnership. I think that is an offer that we can put forward that some other countries are not putting forward.”

But, I ask, might not some African countries question the reliability of the UK and other Western liberal democracies? And will not some say the UK has not helped Africa much on Covid or climate change, and is instead despatching asylum seekers to Rwanda while cutting its foreign aid?

“We are still one of the largest aid donors in the world,” Mr Cleverly said. “Money is important. We absolutely recognise that and we look forward to the point where the UK economy has got back to the position where we go back up to 0.7% of GNI (gross national income) in terms of our overseas development assistance expenditure.

“But it’s about recognising… there are really important partners around the world who are not as wealthy, whose economies are not in the same place as ours. But nevertheless, they absolutely have something to offer to both the UK and to the globe.

“And so we need to have humility, we need to recognise that the only way that we’re going to be mutually successful is a mutually beneficial partnership.”

It is a pitch that Mr Cleverly hopes will shape the UK’s relations with Africa for decades to come.

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One year since the emergence of COVID-19 virus variant Omicron – World Health Organization

It was 26 November 2021 that WHO declared that the world was facing a new variant of concern: Omicron. It would go on to change the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic.Emerging evidence was quickly shared by scientists from Botswana, Hong Kong and South Africa and discussed in a special meeting of WHO’s Technical Advisory Group for Virus Evolution (TAG-VE).Experts at the meeting worried about the large number of mutations present in this variant, which differed greatly from the other variants that had been detected so far. Early data showed Omicron’s rapid spread in some provinces in South Africa and an increased risk of reinfection compared to the previously circulating variants.Just hours later, WHO declared this new variant a variant of concern: we were dealing with something new, something different, and something that the world had to quickly prepare for.WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, records a video announcing the classification of Omicron as variant of concern. As soon as the variant was classified, staff rushed to inform and prepare WHO offices around the globe before the news became public. Photo: WHO The Omicron effectOmicron was quickly identified as being significantly more transmissible than Delta, the preceding variant of concern. Within 4 weeks, as the Omicron wave travelled around the world, it replaced Delta as the dominant variant. Countries which had so far been successful in keeping COVID-19 at bay through public health and social measures now found themselves struggling. For individuals, the greatest price was paid by those who were at risk of severe disease but not vaccinated, and we saw hospitalizations and deaths rise in a number of places around the world.This graph shows reported COVID-19 cases in gray and deaths in blue; the impact of Omicron is clear. While Omicron was less severe compared to Delta, there were still a significant number of deaths due to this variant worldwide. The recent decline in COVID-19 testing around the world has meant that we are underestimating the true number cases, now more than ever.By March 2022, WHO and partners estimate that almost 90% of the global population had antibodies against the COVID-19 virus, whether through vaccination or infection. Overall, though, this new variant caused less severe disease than Delta on average. Scientists worked to understand why this was so. A number of factors likely played a role. For example, the virus replicated more efficiently in the upper airway, and population immunity had been steadily increasing worldwide due to vaccination and infections. While vaccines reduced the impact of Omicron, they themselves were impacted: studies have shown that vaccine effectiveness against infection, disease, hospitalization and death waned (though at different rates) over time. However, protection against hospitalization and death have remained high, preventing millions of people from dying.Health worker and long COVID patient Nazibrola Bidzinashvili conducts a self-test for COVID-19 at home in Tbilisi, Georgia. Georgia, like many other countries, saw a big wave of Omicron infections, that peaked at the end of January 2022. Photo: WHO/Hedinn HalldorssonThe next variant of concern?Since the emergence of Omicron, the virus has continued to evolve. Today, there are over 500 sublineages of this variant circulating, but not one has been designated as a new variant of concern. So far, these sublineages of Omicron have much in common: they are all highly transmissible, replicate in the upper respiratory tract and tend to cause less severe disease compared to previous variants of concern, and they all have mutations that make them escape built-up immunity more easily. This means that they are similar in their impact on public health, and the response that is needed to deal with them. If the virus were to change significantly – like if a new variant caused more severe disease, or if vaccines no longer prevented severe disease and death – the world would need to reconsider its response. In that case, we would have a new variant of concern, and with it, new recommendations and strategy from WHO.A lab worker prepares samples at the National Public Health Laboratory in Singapore, part of the network of WHO reference labs for COVID-19. Countries like Singapore have played an important role in tracking the virus and sharing their findings with WHO and the larger global community. Photo: WHO/Blink Media – Juliana Tan WHO, together with scientists and public health professionals around the world, continues to monitor the circulating variants for signs of the next variant of concern. However, there is apprehension because testing and sequencing are declining globally and the sequences that are available aren’t globally representative (most sequences are shared from high-income countries). WHO and partners also remain concerned that surveillance at the human-animal interface is limited, where the next variant of concern could come from.While it might be difficult to stop a new variant from emerging,
quick detection and information sharing means its impact on our lives
can be minimized.WHO remains grateful to public
health professionals around the world for their continued surveillance
of the COVID-19 virus and the sharing of sequences and analyses.WHO Director-General Dr Tedros visits the Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Scientists from the institute were among the first to share crucial data on Omicron with WHO. Photo: Twitter/@drtedros

It was 26 November 2021 that WHO declared that the world was facing a new variant of concern: Omicron. It would go on to change the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emerging evidence was quickly shared by scientists from Botswana, Hong Kong and South Africa and discussed in a special meeting of WHO’s Technical Advisory Group for Virus Evolution (TAG-VE).

Experts at the meeting worried about the large number of mutations present in this variant, which differed greatly from the other variants that had been detected so far. Early data showed Omicron’s rapid spread in some provinces in South Africa and an increased risk of reinfection compared to the previously circulating variants.

Just hours later, WHO declared this new variant a variant of concern: we were dealing with something new, something different, and something that the world had to quickly prepare for.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove

WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, records a video announcing the classification of Omicron as variant of concern. As soon as the variant was classified, staff rushed to inform and prepare WHO offices around the globe before the news became public. Photo: WHO

 

The Omicron effect

Omicron was quickly identified as being significantly more transmissible than Delta, the preceding variant of concern. Within 4 weeks, as the Omicron wave travelled around the world, it replaced Delta as the dominant variant.

Countries which had so far been successful in keeping COVID-19 at bay through public health and social measures now found themselves struggling. For individuals, the greatest price was paid by those who were at risk of severe disease but not vaccinated, and we saw hospitalizations and deaths rise in a number of places around the world.

A graph comparing COVID-19 cases and deaths

This graph shows reported COVID-19 cases in gray and deaths in blue; the impact of Omicron is clear. While Omicron was less severe compared to Delta, there were still a significant number of deaths due to this variant worldwide. The recent decline in COVID-19 testing around the world has meant that we are underestimating the true number cases, now more than ever.

By March 2022, WHO and partners estimate that almost 90% of the global population had antibodies against the COVID-19 virus, whether through vaccination or infection.

Overall, though, this new variant caused less severe disease than Delta on average. Scientists worked to understand why this was so. A number of factors likely played a role. For example, the virus replicated more efficiently in the upper airway, and population immunity had been steadily increasing worldwide due to vaccination and infections.

While vaccines reduced the impact of Omicron, they themselves were impacted: studies have shown that vaccine effectiveness against infection, disease, hospitalization and death waned (though at different rates) over time. However, protection against hospitalization and death have remained high, preventing millions of people from dying.

A woman sits alone at home, and a COVID-19 self test kit

Health worker and long COVID patient Nazibrola Bidzinashvili conducts a self-test for COVID-19 at home in Tbilisi, Georgia. Georgia, like many other countries, saw a big wave of Omicron infections, that peaked at the end of January 2022. Photo: WHO/Hedinn Halldorsson

The next variant of concern?

Since the emergence of Omicron, the virus has continued to evolve. Today, there are over 500 sublineages of this variant circulating, but not one has been designated as a new variant of concern.

So far, these sublineages of Omicron have much in common: they are all highly transmissible, replicate in the upper respiratory tract and tend to cause less severe disease compared to previous variants of concern, and they all have mutations that make them escape built-up immunity more easily. This means that they are similar in their impact on public health, and the response that is needed to deal with them.

If the virus were to change significantly – like if a new variant caused more severe disease, or if vaccines no longer prevented severe disease and death – the world would need to reconsider its response. In that case, we would have a new variant of concern, and with it, new recommendations and strategy from WHO.

A lab worker in a mask and lab coat

A lab worker prepares samples at the National Public Health Laboratory in Singapore, part of the network of WHO reference labs for COVID-19. Countries like Singapore have played an important role in tracking the virus and sharing their findings with WHO and the larger global community. Photo: WHO/Blink Media – Juliana Tan

 

WHO, together with scientists and public health professionals around the world, continues to monitor the circulating variants for signs of the next variant of concern. However, there is apprehension because testing and sequencing are declining globally and the sequences that are available aren’t globally representative (most sequences are shared from high-income countries).

WHO and partners also remain concerned that surveillance at the human-animal interface is limited, where the next variant of concern could come from.

While it might be difficult to stop a new variant from emerging,
quick detection and information sharing means its impact on our lives
can be minimized.

WHO remains grateful to public
health professionals around the world for their continued surveillance
of the COVID-19 virus and the sharing of sequences and analyses.

Several people in masks watching a demonstration in a lab

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros visits the Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Scientists from the institute were among the first to share crucial data on Omicron with WHO. Photo: Twitter/@drtedros

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Omicron changed the course of the pandemic 1 year ago and still dominates. What’s next? – National | Globalnews.ca – Global News

Dr. Laura Hawryluck says she felt something more was coming.
In November 2021, the Toronto-based critical care doctor had just experienced the toll COVID-19’s Delta variant could have on the human body. However, something told her that health-care workers weren’t done with the pandemic yet.“By the time Omicron attained that level of general consciousness, it had seemed that with the waves of previous variants that we had seen that we were due for another one,” she told Global News.“The most important thought that went through my mind … was, ‘I hope it’s not going to be as bad as the Delta wave that we had just lived through.’ The concern of having to go through that again and see so many people struggle to breathe, so many people not survive – the thought of that was just heartbreaking.” Story continues below advertisement

Read more:

New COVID-19 variant identified in South Africa has scientists concerned

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New COVID-19 variant identified in South Africa has scientists concerned

One year ago on Nov. 24, a group of scientists in South Africa alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to a concerning new COVID-19 variant that featured a large number of mutations. Two days later, on Nov. 26, 2021, the WHO declared it a variant of concern, and name it Omicron.Omicron “altered the course of the pandemic” by infecting millions of Canadians, resulting in the further strain of the health-care system, said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam in her 2022 review of the pandemic.

2:07
Health Canada approves Pfizer-BioNTech bivalent Omicron vaccine

Omicron has remained the dominant COVID-19 strain ever since its emergence one year ago, so what does that mean for the future of the COVID-19 pandemic? Story continues below advertisement

“From an evolutionary standpoint, no other variant has yet to evolve to outcompete Omicron. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen, and that’s why many of us watching this are always walking on eggshells because the virus continues to circulate in someone’s lungs somewhere on the planet,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist with the University Health Network in Toronto.“These viruses are undergoing millions of mutations. You only have to get unlucky once for a mutation to roll around that might outcompete Omicron and replace it, and cause more illness around the world.”

Omicron ‘most noteworthy’ variant of pandemic: Tam

Omicron’s arrival last year marked “perhaps the most noteworthy and rapid changes in the epidemiology of COVID-19 and the public health response,” Tam said in her State of Public Health in Canada 2022 report.Compared to the Delta variant, Omicron was more transmissible and better able to evade both vaccine and infection-acquired immunity. Waning immunity and an increase in indoor gatherings over the winter exacerbated its spread, Tam said. Story continues below advertisement

Despite being linked with less severe illness when compared to Delta, Tam said, Omicron resulted in an increase in hospitalizations and deaths with more infections reported.

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It took four weeks for Omicron to become dominant, and by January, it drove daily confirmed case counts to more than five times the largest number previously reported. Furthermore, COVID-19-related hospitalizations were twice as high as the largest earlier peak, Tam said.Omicron’s quick spread overwhelmed testing infrastructure, which resulted in many provinces changing eligibility around PCR testing and promoting the use of at-home rapid antigen testing.During the initial Omicron wave, public health measures like capacity limits were re-introduced in some regions to protect the health-care system. As Canadians rushed to get vaccinated and boosted, hospitalization rates began declining in February, and many of the public health measures began to ease, Tam said. Story continues below advertisement

The atomic structure of the Omicron variant spike protein is seen in purple, bound with the human ACE2 receptor in blue.

UBC/Dr. Sriram Subramaniam

In Hawryluck’s intensive care unit, she said Omicron didn’t have the same impact as the Delta variant, which drained health-care workers energy further as staffing shortages continued to plague the system.However, with the WHO currently monitoring more than 300 Omicron sub-variants, the anxiety of a new variant-driven surge remains.“Every time a new variant arises, whether it’s a sub-variant of Omicron or a new variant, we feel this sense of trepidation that maybe it’s going to be more aggressive and maybe it’s going to be more virulent,” Hawryluck said.“It’s going to take some time before that anxiety relaxes.”

Where could the pandemic go from here?

This past summer, Omicron BA.5 emerged and became the dominant strain in Canada, driving an increase in infections and severe outcomes. The number of hospitalizations and deaths during the first seven months of 2022 surpassed those reported in the previous year. Story continues below advertisement

Read more:

COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in Canada stable, but higher than past summers

Omicron has shot out a number of sub-variants that are still fighting for supremacy, and Omicron will continue to serve as the base of new mutations in the future, said Dr. Craig Jenne, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Calgary.“Now, although it was getting breakthrough infections in vaccinated people, what was quite remarkable was vaccines still provided fantastic protection against severe disease,” he told Global News.“Though somebody could become infected, the vaccines worked very well to limit that infection … and as a result, people had milder symptoms and less risk of hospitalization or ICU admissions with not only the original Omicron, but most of these sub-variants as well.”

2:03
Omicron subvariants fuel fears about COVID-19 reinfections

In recent weeks Canadian officials have been pleading with the public to stay up-to-date on their vaccinations and wear masks indoors as less restrictive environments have resulted in a resurgence of influenza and RSV, on top of COVID-19. Story continues below advertisement

Flu shots are now available, and Health Canada has approved a slew of COVID-19 vaccines re-tooled for Omicron’s contagious sub-variants.
Read more:

COVID, flu shots reduce ‘danger’ of needing other health measures this winter, Trudeau says

As the holidays near, and with winter settling in, those measures will be important for Canadians to take to stay protected, Bogoch said. However, there’s still uncertainty in terms of where COVID-19 will go from here.“There’s going to be another variant and what degree of protection are we afforded with by our vaccinations and our hybrid immunity? There’s still a lot of uncertainty in the road that lies ahead,” he said.“I get a little uncomfortable hearing some people say, ‘It’s over. There’s nothing to worry about. Let’s move along.’ I think we have to still watch this very closely.”

1:24
Dr. Tam urges Canadians to consider mask-use, getting latest vaccines amid COVID-19 surge

Hawryluck hopes more Canadians will choose to mask indoors over the next few months. Story continues below advertisement

“It’s a small thing to do. I don’t think anyone is saying that we’re going to have to mask forever, and if we mask right now … and it helps just that little bit or makes a difference for one person, why wouldn’t you?” she said.“One of the most important lessons from Omicron, from Delta, from this entire pandemic, is that we have to think about ‘we’, and not just ourselves and what’s comfortable for us or how we assess risk, which may not completely reflect the reality.”

Dr. Laura Hawryluck says she felt something more was coming.

In November 2021, the Toronto-based critical care doctor had just experienced the toll COVID-19’s Delta variant could have on the human body. However, something told her that health-care workers weren’t done with the pandemic yet.

“By the time Omicron attained that level of general consciousness, it had seemed that with the waves of previous variants that we had seen that we were due for another one,” she told Global News.

“The most important thought that went through my mind … was, ‘I hope it’s not going to be as bad as the Delta wave that we had just lived through.’ The concern of having to go through that again and see so many people struggle to breathe, so many people not survive – the thought of that was just heartbreaking.”

Story continues below advertisement

Read more:

New COVID-19 variant identified in South Africa has scientists concerned

One year ago on Nov. 24, a group of scientists in South Africa alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to a concerning new COVID-19 variant that featured a large number of mutations. Two days later, on Nov. 26, 2021, the WHO declared it a variant of concern, and name it Omicron.

Omicron “altered the course of the pandemic” by infecting millions of Canadians, resulting in the further strain of the health-care system, said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam in her 2022 review of the pandemic.


Click to play video: 'Health Canada approves Pfizer-BioNTech bivalent Omicron vaccine'

2:07
Health Canada approves Pfizer-BioNTech bivalent Omicron vaccine


Omicron has remained the dominant COVID-19 strain ever since its emergence one year ago, so what does that mean for the future of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Story continues below advertisement

“From an evolutionary standpoint, no other variant has yet to evolve to outcompete Omicron. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen, and that’s why many of us watching this are always walking on eggshells because the virus continues to circulate in someone’s lungs somewhere on the planet,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist with the University Health Network in Toronto.

“These viruses are undergoing millions of mutations. You only have to get unlucky once for a mutation to roll around that might outcompete Omicron and replace it, and cause more illness around the world.”

Omicron ‘most noteworthy’ variant of pandemic: Tam

Omicron’s arrival last year marked “perhaps the most noteworthy and rapid changes in the epidemiology of COVID-19 and the public health response,” Tam said in her State of Public Health in Canada 2022 report.

Compared to the Delta variant, Omicron was more transmissible and better able to evade both vaccine and infection-acquired immunity. Waning immunity and an increase in indoor gatherings over the winter exacerbated its spread, Tam said.

Story continues below advertisement

Despite being linked with less severe illness when compared to Delta, Tam said, Omicron resulted in an increase in hospitalizations and deaths with more infections reported.

It took four weeks for Omicron to become dominant, and by January, it drove daily confirmed case counts to more than five times the largest number previously reported. Furthermore, COVID-19-related hospitalizations were twice as high as the largest earlier peak, Tam said.

Omicron’s quick spread overwhelmed testing infrastructure, which resulted in many provinces changing eligibility around PCR testing and promoting the use of at-home rapid antigen testing.

During the initial Omicron wave, public health measures like capacity limits were re-introduced in some regions to protect the health-care system. As Canadians rushed to get vaccinated and boosted, hospitalization rates began declining in February, and many of the public health measures began to ease, Tam said.

Story continues below advertisement


The atomic structure of the Omicron variant spike protein is seen in purple, bound with the human ACE2 receptor in blue.


UBC/Dr. Sriram Subramaniam

In Hawryluck’s intensive care unit, she said Omicron didn’t have the same impact as the Delta variant, which drained health-care workers energy further as staffing shortages continued to plague the system.

However, with the WHO currently monitoring more than 300 Omicron sub-variants, the anxiety of a new variant-driven surge remains.

“Every time a new variant arises, whether it’s a sub-variant of Omicron or a new variant, we feel this sense of trepidation that maybe it’s going to be more aggressive and maybe it’s going to be more virulent,” Hawryluck said.

“It’s going to take some time before that anxiety relaxes.”

Where could the pandemic go from here?

This past summer, Omicron BA.5 emerged and became the dominant strain in Canada, driving an increase in infections and severe outcomes. The number of hospitalizations and deaths during the first seven months of 2022 surpassed those reported in the previous year.

Story continues below advertisement

Read more:

COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in Canada stable, but higher than past summers

Omicron has shot out a number of sub-variants that are still fighting for supremacy, and Omicron will continue to serve as the base of new mutations in the future, said Dr. Craig Jenne, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Calgary.

“Now, although it was getting breakthrough infections in vaccinated people, what was quite remarkable was vaccines still provided fantastic protection against severe disease,” he told Global News.

“Though somebody could become infected, the vaccines worked very well to limit that infection … and as a result, people had milder symptoms and less risk of hospitalization or ICU admissions with not only the original Omicron, but most of these sub-variants as well.”


Click to play video: 'Omicron subvariants fuel fears about COVID-19 reinfections'

2:03
Omicron subvariants fuel fears about COVID-19 reinfections


In recent weeks Canadian officials have been pleading with the public to stay up-to-date on their vaccinations and wear masks indoors as less restrictive environments have resulted in a resurgence of influenza and RSV, on top of COVID-19.

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Flu shots are now available, and Health Canada has approved a slew of COVID-19 vaccines re-tooled for Omicron’s contagious sub-variants.

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COVID, flu shots reduce ‘danger’ of needing other health measures this winter, Trudeau says

As the holidays near, and with winter settling in, those measures will be important for Canadians to take to stay protected, Bogoch said. However, there’s still uncertainty in terms of where COVID-19 will go from here.

“There’s going to be another variant and what degree of protection are we afforded with by our vaccinations and our hybrid immunity? There’s still a lot of uncertainty in the road that lies ahead,” he said.

“I get a little uncomfortable hearing some people say, ‘It’s over. There’s nothing to worry about. Let’s move along.’ I think we have to still watch this very closely.”


Click to play video: 'Dr. Tam urges Canadians to consider mask-use, getting latest vaccines amid COVID-19 surge'

1:24
Dr. Tam urges Canadians to consider mask-use, getting latest vaccines amid COVID-19 surge


Hawryluck hopes more Canadians will choose to mask indoors over the next few months.

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“It’s a small thing to do. I don’t think anyone is saying that we’re going to have to mask forever, and if we mask right now … and it helps just that little bit or makes a difference for one person, why wouldn’t you?” she said.

“One of the most important lessons from Omicron, from Delta, from this entire pandemic, is that we have to think about ‘we’, and not just ourselves and what’s comfortable for us or how we assess risk, which may not completely reflect the reality.”

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Ethiopian Emergency Medical teams’ first deployment provides support to drought-affected areas – WHO | Regional Office for Africa

The first cohort of WHO-trained emergency medical teams (EMT) provides critical support to the drought emergency response in Somali Region, Ethiopia In April 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Emergency Medical Teams (EMT) Training Centre was officially inaugurated by Dr Matshidiso Moeti WHO Regional Director for Africa, and Honorable Dr Lia Tadesse Minister of Health (MoH), Ethiopia in the presence of Dr Abdou Salam Gueye, Regional Emergency Director, and Dr Boureima Hama Sambo, WHO Representative in Ethiopia.  The training centre has since trained over 100 cohorts of emergency medical teams (EMTs) from different parts of the country.   

In June 2022, 17-member EMT that were trained by the EMT centre were deployed to Gode, a town in the Somali Regional State, for the team’s first mission to provide clinical care to people affected by drought, and to support the local health system.  After receiving pre-deployment orientation from WHO, MoH and the Somali Regional Health Bureau, the emergency medical team composed of general practitioner physicians, pediatricians, nurses, and nutritionists took up the responsibility of supporting the emergency response in Gode for 21 days.  

During their deployment, the team executed several clinical activities including managing severe acute malnutrition with medical complications at the stabilization center, screening and admission of moderate acute malnutrition (MAM) cases patients into Targeted Supplementary Feeding services. During their three-week deployment, the team conducted nutritional screening of 211 children at IDP sites and Gode Hospital, and admitted about 100 children with severe acute malnutrition to the stabilization center at the Hospital. The team closely followed up the patients at the stabilization centre, and conducted two rounds of screening daily for 3 weeks.  Ninety children showed improvement under their care and were discharged during the same period.  

 “We’re proud of our team’s well-coordinated engagement for a successful response. We request our partners’ long-term sustainable support for the continued impact of the team. We have set the foundation for the future.” Degisew Dersso said, Surge and clinical Disaster management coordinator, EMT Coordinator and Conflict Response IMS-Acute care and clinical Section Lead.  

The team also provided training and health education to mothers whose children were admitted to the stabilization center and IDP sites. The education focused mainly on breastfeeding, complementary feeding, environmental and hand hygiene, appropriate feeding practice and detecting signs of severe acute malnutrition. The Ethiopian EMT also provided training to Intensive Care Unit (ICU) staff at Gode Hospital on essential relevant skills to operate a mechanical ventilator, provision of basic life support, critical care, Infection Prevention and Control (IPC), medical crash cart handling and documentation. In addition, the team handled some minor maintenance and repair tasks to  on medical equipment in the hospital.  

The structure of the Ethiopian EMT core technical team is linked with the routine health system and coordinated with the Ministry of Health National Incident Management System. The technical team leads were recruited from WHO and MoH. Following two local and one international EMT induction training with simulation exercises, 70 volunteer members were put on standby for emergency response. 

The global EMT initiative aims to improve the timeliness and quality of health services provided by national and international EMTs and enhance the capacity of national health systems to lead the activation and coordination of emergency response in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, outbreak and other emergencies.

The first cohort of WHO-trained emergency medical teams (EMT) provides critical support to the drought emergency response in Somali Region, Ethiopia 

In April 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Emergency Medical Teams (EMT) Training Centre was officially inaugurated by Dr Matshidiso Moeti WHO Regional Director for Africa, and Honorable Dr Lia Tadesse Minister of Health (MoH), Ethiopia in the presence of Dr Abdou Salam Gueye, Regional Emergency Director, and Dr Boureima Hama Sambo, WHO Representative in Ethiopia.  The training centre has since trained over 100 cohorts of emergency medical teams (EMTs) from different parts of the country.   

EMTIn June 2022, 17-member EMT that were trained by the EMT centre were deployed to Gode, a town in the Somali Regional State, for the team’s first mission to provide clinical care to people affected by drought, and to support the local health system.  After receiving pre-deployment orientation from WHO, MoH and the Somali Regional Health Bureau, the emergency medical team composed of general practitioner physicians, pediatricians, nurses, and nutritionists took up the responsibility of supporting the emergency response in Gode for 21 days.  

During their deployment, the team executed several clinical activities including managing severe acute malnutrition with medical complications at the stabilization center, screening and admission of moderate acute malnutrition (MAM) cases patients into Targeted Supplementary Feeding services.
 
During their three-week deployment, the team conducted nutritional screening of 211 children at IDP sites and Gode Hospital, and admitted about 100 children with severe acute malnutrition to the stabilization center at the Hospital. The team closely followed up the patients at the stabilization centre, and conducted two rounds of screening daily for 3 weeks.  Ninety children showed improvement under their care and were discharged during the same period.  

EMT
 “We’re proud of our team’s well-coordinated engagement for a successful response. We request our partners’ long-term sustainable support for the continued impact of the team. We have set the foundation for the future.” Degisew Dersso said, Surge and clinical Disaster management coordinator, EMT Coordinator and Conflict Response IMS-Acute care and clinical Section Lead.  

The team also provided training and health education to mothers whose children were admitted to the stabilization center and IDP sites. The education focused mainly on breastfeeding, complementary feeding, environmental and hand hygiene, appropriate feeding practice and detecting signs of severe acute malnutrition. 
The Ethiopian EMT also provided training to Intensive Care Unit (ICU) staff at Gode Hospital on essential relevant skills to operate a mechanical ventilator, provision of basic life support, critical care, Infection Prevention and Control (IPC), medical crash cart handling and documentation. In addition, the team handled some minor maintenance and repair tasks to  on medical equipment in the hospital.  

EMT

The structure of the Ethiopian EMT core technical team is linked with the routine health system and coordinated with the Ministry of Health National Incident Management System. The technical team leads were recruited from WHO and MoH. Following two local and one international EMT induction training with simulation exercises, 70 volunteer members were put on standby for emergency response. 

The global EMT initiative aims to improve the timeliness and quality of health services provided by national and international EMTs and enhance the capacity of national health systems to lead the activation and coordination of emergency response in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, outbreak and other emergencies.

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