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Omicron, political divisions paint grim outlook for 2022

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Omicron, political divisions paint grim outlook for 2022
If COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shots are not sufficient to halt the Omicron variant, the onset of 2022 could be accompanied by higher infection rates. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

The arrival of Omicron and the extraordinary mutations that may have created a far more contagious virus paints what could be a very grim picture for 2022.

Thus far, COVID-19, A-D variants, will claim more lives than all the wars the United States has fought since 1776.

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The Spanish flu of 1918-20 once featured prominently during the reporting the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reminding ourselves of comparisons with the 1918-20 pandemic and how it ended is timely. Chapter 6 of my new book, The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large, does that.

About 675,000 Americans died of the Spanish flu, with 15- to 35-year-olds surprisingly susceptible to the virus. Those deaths were equivalent to about 2 million Americans today. No vaccines, ventilators and anti-viral drugs existed then. The country was largely rural, and only a small slice of Americans had access to electricity. Driving coast to coast took weeks, as no interstate highway system was in place. After Warren Harding became president in January 1921, that would be rectified.

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The Spanish flu came in three waves, growing deadlier with each successive mutation. By the time heard immunity had dampened the impact of the pandemic, the virus would still survive in less virulent and semi-latent forms. Related strains would cause three later, less deadly pandemics in 1957, 1968 and 2009.

After it receded, the U.S. public promptly developed collective amnesia about the Spanish flu.

Harding, until his untimely death in 1923, oversaw what would be the greatest economic boom in America's history. Powered by massive electrification of the nation, productivity soared to stratospheric levels. A flourishing car industry generated huge sales with concurrent demand for steel, rubber, gasoline and of course gas stations, accommodations and restaurants, all accelerated by passage of the 1921 National Highways Act. New technologies in the form of radio, aviation and movies, likewise, fueled the fabulous Roaring '20s that followed.

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Judging how the COVID-19 pandemic may unfold can benefit from this history. Like the Spanish flu, some virus mutations may be more lethal. If this pattern continues and vaccinations and booster shots are not sufficient to halt Omicron, the onset of 2022 could be accompanied by higher infection rates. The newness of the variant has limited studies and collection of enough data to determine how dangerous Omicron might be.

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If a dramatic spike in cases and deaths occurs, the government will have to consider taking strong and unpalatable actions to include mandating vaccines, social distancing and wearing of masks, despite the predictable backlash and possible violence. Shutting down parts of the economy and schools could be necessary if the pandemic continues to spread unchecked.

All that, given the political deadlock in Congress; what appears to be the demise of the Build Back Better bill, the centerpiece of President Joe Biden's agenda; inflation that may be persistent and not transitory; and of course Russian military intimidation of NATO by its buildup around Ukraine make the new year very inhospitable for the White House.

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After the Spanish flu receded, and the economy boomed, the United States failed to put in place guardrails to prevent a financial meltdown and the ensuing 1929 crash. The United States under President Woodrow Wilson failed to establish a stable post-World War I system and withdrew into isolationism. The victors of the Great War tragically and stupidly imposed crippling reparations on defeated Germany. Two decades later, a second world war broke out, unfinished business from 1914-18.

It seems unlikely that the United States will repeat, a century later, an unprecedented economic boom. But it must deal with the dangerous consequences of policies that have contributed to the adversarial relationships among the United States, China and Russia. No one is forecasting another 1939 and a world war. But instead of rallying the nation and forging international cooperation to battle the pandemic, COVID-19 has had the directly opposite effect.

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Aside from vaccines and cures, the biggest difference with 1918-20, so far, is the profound political divisions that exist today, which the pandemic has only widened. And this pandemic may be far from over.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and the upcoming book "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large."

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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