Pandemic Update: COVID-19 Variant Omicron 

On November 26, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement noting that the SARS-CoV-2 Variant B.1.1.529, or the “Omicron” variant, was classified as a “variant of concern.” This came after South Africa had reported to the WHO that recent surges of cases were noted to be largely due to this variant, with the first known detection of this variant in South Africa being on November 9, 2021.

While many variants have made news headlines since the pandemic began, only a few have become concerning. The Omicron variant has been a cause for concern compared to other variants because of the surge in cases associated with it. This may be a sign that this variant is more transmissible than other variants. In addition, sequencing of this variant shows a large number of mutations, and while the number of mutations is not always significant, it does increase the chances of a variant having mutations with significant health consequences. Other big questions that have yet to be answered are whether this variant is more deadly and whether our current vaccines will work against this variant. Unfortunately, it is still too early to tell, however many experts state that it is highly unlikely that our vaccines will be completely ineffective against this variant and thus, vaccination, along with other public health measures, will be key in preventing this variant and any other variants from continuing to spread.

It is important to note that this variant was first detected in South Africa, however there is no evidence that this variant first developed or appeared in South Africa or even in that part of the world. South Africa has a robust system for detecting new variants, and is more likely than many other countries to be the first to detect a new one, even if the variant originated elsewhere. The result of South Africa being the first to detect a variant and the media then referring to it as a “South African variant” is that South Africa and other nearby countries are effectively being maligned and punished for its effective monitoring and reporting systems. The Omicron variant, which has now been detected in countries such as the U.K., Italy, and Germany, was also detected in places such as Belgium and Hong Kong within a similar time frame as South Africa. Early travel restrictions in the United States, however, were only specific to the following African nations: South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. Such a policy only continues to fuel stigmatization of these nations in addition to aligning with historically racist international health policy, especially when detection and sequencing happened there first and was reported to the WHO for transparency and for the sake of the world. 

This also highlights the incredible lack of vaccine access and equity across the world, and without equal vaccine access, variants will continue to appear. Rather than stigmatizing and racist travel restrictions, vaccine equity is what will help prevent further variants from developing and spreading. This is also why President Biden’s recent call to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines is so crucial. Without profit-focused patents, COVID-19 vaccines can be produced around the world by smaller governments and companies. Vaccine access for everybody is necessary, but boosters and additional doses are also incredibly important, another reason why we must be able to maximize producing and providing access to COVID-19 vaccines to everybody.

Finally, while the Omicron variant is making headlines right now, it is still too early to tell how much of a threat this variant actually is. We have chosen to cover this variant because it is a variant of concern and policies have been enacted in response to this specific variant. Again, if you are not yet vaccinated or are eligible for a booster shot, please do so and reach out with any questions, comments or concerns! 

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Michigan Worst in U.S. for COVID-19 As Cases Surge Nationally

Michigan continues to lead the U.S. in number of COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 case rate, and the surge in cases shows no signs of slowing down. Across the state of Michigan, 85% of hospital beds are full, and both Sparrow and McLaren hospitals in Lansing are at or above 97% full. Nine hospitals in the state are currently at 100% capacity. Some hospitals are so overwhelmed that the federal government is sending military medical staff to assist Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn and Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids. Cases are currently rising across the U.S., but Michigan is doing worse than any other state. Please get vaccinated (and get a booster shot!), avoid public gatherings, wear a mask, and follow other public health recommendations.

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Killers of Ahmaud Arbery Found Guilty of Felony Murder

On Wednesday, the three White men who killed Ahmaud Arbery were found guilty of felony murder. While the verdict is a relief, true justice will require dismantling White supremacy. The President of the NAACP released the following statement:

"The verdict in the trial over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery is long overdue. Ahmaud Arbery's death was unnecessary and fueled by racist ideologies deeply engrained into the fabric of this nation. Generations of Black people have seen this time and time again, with the murder of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, and many others. The actions and events perpetrated by the McMichaels and William Bryan leading up to Ahmaud's death reflect a growing and deepening rift in America that will be its undoing if not addressed on a systemic level. We must fix what is genuinely harming our nation: white supremacy. To address and begin to repair the harm and trauma caused by centuries of racism, violence, and murder, we need stronger federal and state actions to address and eliminate outdated racist policies, like citizens' arrest.

Although we still grieve the senseless murder of Ahmaud, today, we stand in solidarity with the family and Brunswick community and celebrate the guilty verdict that will bring some comfort and sense of justice to Mr. Arbery's family, friends, and community."

For a summary of the original incident, read Queering Medicine's coverage from when the men were indicted.

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Kevin Strickland Freed After 42 Years Wrongly Imprisoned, But Missouri Will Not Compensate Him

On Tuesday, Kevin Strickland was exonerated and set free after spending 42 years in a Missouri prison for a 1978 murder that he did not commit. Strickland, a Black man, was found guilty by an all-White jury, after prosecutors intentionally excluded anyone Black from the jury. Strickland's wrongful imprisonment is among the longest that has been officially acknowledged in U.S. history. The exoneration is the first of its kind in the state after a new law went into effect this summer, but was delayed multiple times because the state's Republican Attorney General fought against his release.

While Missouri law provides compensation to people who have been wrongly imprisoned, it only applies to people who prove their innocence solely using DNA testing, a limitation that serves no purpose other than to deny compensation to the majority of people who are wrongly imprisoned. Other states have more appropriate laws to provide compensation to anyone wrongly convicted - if Strickland were in Kansas, he would receive more than $2.7 million ($65,000 per year). Missouri makes matters worse by having a maximum payout of $36,500 per year, so even if Strickland was eligible to receive compensation, he would not live long enough to collect more than a fraction of it.

While the state of Missouri will avoid paying Strickland anything due to their unjust and unethical system, a GoFundMe has raised nearly $1.5 million for Strickland. The money can't give back the years he has lost, and he will have to make it last - he has no realistic options for income or financial support, and has not lived outside of a prison since he was a teenager in the 1970s.

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Organizers of 2017 White Nationalist Rally in Charlottesville Ordered to Pay Millions in Damages

On Tuesday, a jury determined that 17 White nationalist organizations and leaders must pay over $26 million for their roles in the “Unite the Right” rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. The White supremacist rally was instigated in opposition to the removal of Confederate monuments, and included a large crowd of White people holding torches around a statue of Robert E. Lee. In addition to ordering those responsible for organizing the rally to pay damages, the jury also ordered James Alex Fields, Jr. to pay damages for his actions. Fields intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others. Fields is serving life in prison for for murder and hate crimes.

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The Thanksgiving Story is Historically Inaccurate and Harmful to Native Americans

Many know Thanksgiving as a celebration of the early settlers who would build the United States and their friendship with the Wampanoag Native Americans, but this is based on European colonizer narratives rather than historical accuracy. It is true that Europeans received assistance from the Wampanoag tribe, but the similarities stop there. Despite receiving support, the European settlers started claiming ownership of land and began the genocide of Native Americans. For many Indigenous people, Thanksgiving is a National Day of Mourning and the retelling of the false story is considered harmful. Some Native Americans reject the holiday entirely and some have suggested reframing it and our national conversation so that it focuses on supporting Indigenous communities and the current issues they face.

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Articles and Speeches on Thanksgiving written by Native Americans:

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