The first U.S. case of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 was announced on Wednesday. With South Africa having first reported the new iteration of the coronavirus last week, it’s now spreading globally, creating more uncertainty about the future of the whole pandemic. Yet the advent of Omicron also comes at a moment of “Covid fatigue.” As the White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, recently acknowledged, “We see that, in poll after poll, … people are sick and tired of Covid and the impacts on the economy.” They’re also growing weary of restrictive government policies aimed at keeping them safe from the virus and limiting its spread. Over the past couple of weeks, massive protests broke out in Europe after several countries imposed new restrictions—and in some cases, the demonstrations turned violent. Where is this all going?

Scott L. Greer is a professor of health management and policy, global public health, and political science at the University of Michigan—and one of the editors of Coronavirus Politics: The Comparative Politics and Policy of Covid-19. Greer says the world leaders now imposing new Covid restrictions, or reviving old ones, are betting on support from citizens, even if the restrictions increasingly enrage a vocal minority of them. He doubts we’ll see a return to prolonged lockdowns or other measures that harm economies—especially since vaccines are dramatically enhancing governments’ ability to manage the virus—though countries with serious vaccination problems might impose limited policies such as 10-day forced holidays. In Greer’s view, the “wave of the future” for many governments will be to follow the leads of France and Austria, placing more restrictions on unvaccinated people. Covid may not be behind us, but Greer sees the extraordinary political climate of the early pandemic giving way to politics as usual—at least one way some normalcy might be returning to life around the world.

Graham Vyse: How do you see the political challenges shifting globally as Omicron spreads?

Scott L. Greer: If you look at disasters of any kind—from wildfires to epidemics—there’s a very strong pattern: At the beginning, there’s a surge of adrenaline. It’s time to be a hero. People come together. There’s clapping for healthcare workers and resourcefulness and creativity and community. Then that dissipates, and by the time it’s been a year people tend to be unusually bitter. There’s a lot more divisiveness, scapegoating, and people saying they’re willing to accept risk just to get back to something like normal life. Applying that theory, you would have said March 2021 would have been the pits, but then it felt—at least across the rich countries—like we were coming out of the pandemic. It’s why the Delta variant hit so hard. Now there’s Omicron, and we’re stuck with populations in a lot of countries that aren’t vaccinated enough to mean we don’t have to worry. There’s a sense that there’s not going to be the day when we can blow a whistle, have a party, and go back to normal life—but what you’re seeing is, in many ways, the reversion to normal politics. We’re stuck in the worst, most tired and grumpy phase of this, and it’s not totally clear how we get out of it in most countries.

Jordan Bracco

Vyse: You say most countries. How are the politics evolving differently in different places?

Greer: Almost everywhere, it’s a politics of blame—blame for why you can’t eat in a restaurant or why you need a vaccine passport. A lot of what’s going on politically is about how to avoid blame for something you have to do—or for something worse happening.

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