By Noralyn Onto Dudt
“IS IT EVER going to end?” This has been the central question of late. Obsessively pondering covid’s endgame can be dangerous to your mental health. Pandemics do end as history tells us. But many pandemics become endemic, meaning they morph into something that is no longer an emergency, but rather an annoyance, an ugly even painful fact of life that people simply learn to cope with, like the flu or common cold. Malaria, a mosquito-borne life-threatening disease is still around but curable. In 1980 the World Health Organization triumphantly declared that due to aggressive global vaccination programs, the dreaded disease smallpox had been eradicated.
With several Corona variants that have been popping up, the question is when and how do we get to that point.
Some of the world’s most prominent epidemiologists and public health experts say we are already there. “The emergency phase of the disease is over,” said a well-known professor of Medicine at Stanford University. However, there are still many of us who are stuck in the “emergency mode” and we need to work very hard to undo this sense of emergency. If we follow the science, we can start treating COVID-19 as one of the 200 diseases that affect people.
The pivotal engine driving a return to normal life has been the vaccines, which really do protect against death. Without the vaccines many more would have died. It’s a miraculous development that needs to be celebrated. By driving down deaths and hospitalizations especially for the most vulnerable populations—the elderly and people with pre-existing health problems—we have turned the corner.
The virus will continue to mutate and there will be outbreaks, both seasonal and in geographic clusters, but panicking over case numbers is a recipe for continuing unwarranted panic.
As scary and as dangerous the Delta variant has been, we’re sort of at the peak of the pandemic because the Delta variant is feverishly and furiously creating immunity. Delta comes in like a hurricane or a typhoon, but it leaves a lot of immunity in its wake. Although its rapid spread and severe impact on some people are scary, the delta version has a hidden benefit: it makes future variants less likely to be more lethal.
As the “light at the end of the tunnel” had been dimmed by the variants, so many people wonder what exactly has to happen to something that looks and feels like 2019. The answers come in a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of scenarios, some suggested with utmost humility, others with mathematical confidence.
Those who are on the more “gloomy side of the fence” predict that it could take another year or so before most people are ready to resume normal activities. The spread of the Delta variant, the continuing resistance to vaccines and widespread anxiety, especially about children who are not eligible to get vaccinated are causing unnecessary delays. Children transmit viruses to each other, to their families, to their communities. The first step toward normalcy would be in getting children vaccinated, at least for ages 5 and up. The mathematically-inclined folks see several routes back to normal life, including letting the virus “burn through” the population, focusing on masking and hybrid schooling. Without these precautions, we could be back to lockdown mode.
Ten years from now, the coronavirus will be like influenza—it can cause death, but not as deadly as we see now. However, in the next year or so, the “light at the end of the tunnel” will be brighter, and we can hope for a partial return to normalcy. We hope to see hospitals no longer being swamped or crushed with COVID-19 patients and children back in their classrooms.
Any consensus on ratcheting down the fear and anxiety that the virus has spawned is more likely to emerge from public health campaigns than political campaigns. It’s up to public officials to persuade the public that if they are vaccinated, they can return to pre-pandemic activities. And it’s also up to public officials to ensure that no one should be allowed to profit—politically as well as economically—from COVID-19. It’s only then that we can get this pandemic to end or to turn it into its non-emergency form, something that we can cope with—an endemic.