Coronavirus Briefing: South Africa’s Omicron lessons

And the death of the return-to-office date.,

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ImageDaily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.
Daily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.Credit…The New York Times

When it comes to the spread of the Omicron variant — and understanding it — South Africa is a step ahead of the rest of the world.

Since the detection of the variant in November, coronavirus cases have skyrocketed. On Sunday, the country’s president tested positive for the virus. For an update on South Africa, I spoke to Lynsey Chutel, who covers southern Africa for The Times.

What does the latest science out of South Africa tell us about Omicron?

There have been two big developments in the last few days.

In the last week, thanks to a study by the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, we now have some sense how the Pfizer vaccine performs against the Omicron variant. Lab experiments showed that, unfortunately, antibodies produced in people who are vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine were less effective in preventing the spread of Omicron than other variants. On the plus side, the vaccine still seemed to show some protection against severe illness from Covid-19.

That seems to be a recurring theme in covering the new variant’s development in South Africa: There has been a complex mix of alarming trends, like the hospitalization of children, and then some really hopeful developments. For a few days, it seemed as though we’d reached the peak of the fourth wave and — as is the nature of a pandemic in the 21st century — there was a lot of optimistic tweeting. However, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases explained this was likely because of a lag in reporting. It’s a lesson in drawing hasty conclusions from daily data, and a reminder of the constant refrain since the detection of the Omicron variant. It’s still too soon to draw any concrete conclusions.

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Credit…The New York Times

What do hospitalizations in the country tell us about the severity of disease caused by Omicron?

Hospitalizations have brought in a little bit of hopeful data, in that they have not kept up with infections. In fact, Dr. Michelle Groome, an epidemiologist at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, said that she was seeing what she called a “disconnect” in the two curves. So the infection curve is continuing to go up, and the hospital admissions curve is not increasing at the same speed. But again, the caveat is that it’s still very early in the fourth wave.

What’s the government doing?

The National Coronavirus Command Council in South Africa is meeting this week to discuss the best response to the increasing infections and whether the country needs to go into some sort of lockdown. Will we go back to a stricter curfew? Will we ban interprovincial travel? Will restaurants have to close early? Soon, we’re going to find out what kind of a Christmas we’ll have this year.

Another question is what to do about vaccine mandates. Vaccines are still not compulsory, but we’re seeing some businesses, like Africa’s biggest telecom company, beginning to introduce vaccine mandates at its Johannesburg headquarters. A big question is whether vaccine mandates will be instituted for large public areas, like shopping malls and beaches.

What’s the atmosphere like?

I ventured to an outdoor market Saturday afternoon, and for the most part people are going on with their lives because it’s sunny and it’s hard to stay indoors. When I was at the market, I noticed every couple of minutes there was a notice over loudspeakers: “Masks are mandatory. Keep your masks on.” Lots of people had sanitizer in their bags, and people were constantly giving out hand sanitizer. But I don’t think we’re seeing a push by people to stay home.

Why is that?

Because of a sense of pandemic fatigue. And because the last time the restrictions were eased we held an election. So it’s very difficult for officials to tell South Africans that they campaigned and held rallies, but now we need to go back into lockdown. I just can’t see South Africans taking that very quietly.

There’s also a real economic concern about restrictions. Perhaps more than in the past, I think, people are going to weigh whether they’re going to follow any new restrictions. After two years of the pandemic, our economy is ailing and unemployment is high. I think the question going forward is, Will people follow the restrictions for their health, or disobey them for the sake of their pockets?


When will companies require employees to return to the office? After innumerable delays and setbacks, the new answer seems to be: We’ll get back to you.

“Return-to-office dates used to be like talismans,” my colleague Emma Goldberg writes. “The chief executives who set them seemed to wield some power over the shape of the months to come. Then the dates were postponed, and postponed again. At some point the spell was broken.”

As visions for full-scale reopenings and mandatory returns have gone unrealized, R.T.O. dates have become more wishful thinking than a reliable commitment.

“The only companies being dishonest are the ones giving employees certainty,” said Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor who advises dozens of chief executives. “As a parent you can hide stuff from your kids, but as a C.E.O. you can’t do that to adult employees who read the news.”

A survey of 238 executives, conducted in late August by the research company Gartner, found that two-thirds of organizations had delayed their return-to-office plans because of news about coronavirus variants. Apple, Ford, CNN and Google are just a few of the employers that announced postponements, and Lyft said the earliest that workers would be required to return to the office was 2023.

New workplace vernacular. Bookcase credibility. Polywork. Zoombie. Emma also explored the new language of work life.



My world has shrunk to my husband and a couple of friends I talk to on the phone. Dinners with friends are a thing of the past. I worry that I’m losing my ability to interact with other people. I’ve always been an introvert, but lately, on the rare occasions I actually get together with a friend, I seem to have lost the ability to converse. My world is becoming silent.

— Elaine Turner, Denver

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