Opinion: Another sucky Christmas
Oh no! Another sucky Christmas. But at least it’s not the worst that we’ve ever had.
Last Christmas, we had to deal with a potentially lethal coronavirus for which we had no vaccine. We were restricted in terms of where we could go and what we could do. The result was that relatively few families had a “traditional” day with lots of family relatives and friends. On the other hand, there was no worry about department stores having plenty of stock on hand for presents and holiday use. Well, maybe except for toilet paper, face masks, and Clorox.
Still, it was the “suckiest Christmas ever,” at least according to my opinion piece on the occasion.
But change occurred rapidly, although it didn’t seem so at the time. Breaking all records for the development of a vaccine, Pfizer and Moderna announced that they each had a serum that yielded somewhere around 95 percent efficacy in FDA trials. I received my first injection of the Pfizer formulation in February and the second in March. (Later, I got the booster in September.)
At the time, I believed that, after the 14-day waiting period, I was “fully vaccinated.” However, most of our county (like most of the rest of the United States) was not. So, I continued to wear my face mask whenever I was indoors in a public place or outdoors where a lot of people were crowded together.
Then we learned that there was a new strain of the virus that seemed to spread more easily and hit victims even harder. It was called “the delta variant.” Delta is the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet. So, there must have been two other mutations before delta.
A little digging into sources about “global health” revealed that the original form of the virus was the Alpha strain, first documented in Great Britain. Then there was a Beta variant, but it was found mostly in South Africa. A Gamma variant that we hardly heard about was active in Brazil. But if either mutation was carried to the United States, it probably brought about minimal concern.
Viruses mutate. That’s their Darwinian purpose. So, there must have been epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, kappa, and lambda variants, perhaps in laboratories because we never heard about them. Then in early July, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified the mu strain as a “variant of interest.” It seemed to have developed in Columbia, and there were sporadic outbreaks in other parts of South America as well as in parts of Europe.
Mu became the fifth “variant of interest,” at the time. According to WHO, Alpha was present in 193 countries. Beta was reported in 141 countries. Gamma was found in 91 countries, and Delta affected 170 countries. By the end of August, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reported the Mu variant had been detected “sporadically” in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
Naming the mutations
WHO and other health agencies have followed the Greek alphabet in naming the variants of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) because it is simpler than using the scientific designation. So, it was somewhat confusing when the strain that was discovered last month was called the Omicron variant, skipping over Nu and Xi in the alphabet.
When media representatives asked why two letters of the Greek alphabet were ignored, WHO issued a statement that its practice for naming diseases attempts to avoid “causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.” In a clarification of the statement, it was pointed out that “Nu” is too easily confused with “new,” perhaps suggesting and entirely novel disease, and “Xi” was not used because it is a common last name.
Really? As in Xi Jinping, who has been serving as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission since 2012, and President of the People’s Republic of China since 2013? Writing for the Associated Press, Angelo Fichera points out, “This is the first time the organization has skipped letters since it began using the Greek alphabet for coronavirus variants.”
What lies ahead?
As I write this column, there are more COVID-19 cases in Europe than there have ever been. Because the beast has not been tamed, we can expect that some of the living viruses will continue to mutate, bringing about ever-new variants. Just how many new variants can’t possibly be known at this point.
During the past two years (since December 19, 2019), twelve variants, in addition to the original Alpha strain, have been identified. And we’ve used up the first 15 letters of the Greek alphabet to name them. The alphabetic characters that we have left are Pi, Rho, Sigma, Tau, Upsilon, Phi, Chi, Psi, and Omega. Because Pi, Phi, Chi, and Psi could be confused, we probably have only five names and perhaps one of the four ending in “i” left. But if the virus keeps on mutating, we’ll need to think up a system for more designations.
On course, we’re limited to characters that can be produced by a standard QWERTY keyboard, and that rules out languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet as well as Chinese, Japanese, and most other languages from Asian and Eastern European countries. Of course, we could use Roman numerals, but Americans (especially younger ones) would be confused by those numbers that involve subtraction, like IV for four or IXX for 19.
Pacific island languages have been recorded using the sounds of the Roman alphabet, and many have very few letters. Hawaian, for example, has five vowels (A, E, I, O, and U, pronounced as they are in Spanish). And, it has only 7 consonants (H, K, L, M, N, P, and W). So, I suggest that we steal a page from modern technology. Once we exhaust the Greek alphabet, let’s call the next incarnation of the virus Alpha 2.0, Beta 2.0, etc.
If you’re still ready for Yule joy after that, I hope you have a mele Kalikimaka (merry Christmas, in Hawaiian).
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Jim Glynn, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.