First of all, the bad news. With unpredictable epidemics still occurring around the world and variants like Omicron raising questions about the contagiousness of the virus, we are still in a pandemic.
The good news: While it’s difficult to predict the exact time, most scientists agree that the Covid-19 pandemic will end and the virus will become endemic. This means that the virus will probably never be completely eliminated, but as more people get vaccinated and become exposed to it, infections will eventually occur at a consistently low rate and fewer people will become seriously ill. An area with high vaccination and booster rates is likely to experience endemicity sooner than an area with lower rates.
What does this transition look like?
Concretely, there will be an announcement. The World Health Organization and local health agencies will officially declare the global pandemic over, a designation based on certain biological and statistical credentials: the contagiousness of the virus, the death rate and the power to overwhelm hospitals, for n ‘ to name a few.
In some places, like the United States and other wealthy countries with easy access to vaccines and antiviral treatments, endemicity could look a lot like the present day: people emerging from despair, diners crowding into rooms. restaurants and vaccination cards verified with decreasing rigor. But there could also be other, more profound societal changes.
To understand how daily life will change if Covid-19 becomes rampant, we can turn to history for a useful (albeit imperfect) guide.
A change in mentalities and behaviors
People generally respond to epidemics with fear and panic, both individually and as a society. According to Charles Kenny, director of the Center for Global Development and author of The Plague Cycle, these reactions reliably take shape in some now recognizable ways: closing borders, sequestering the sick and withdrawing from society.
Until the advent of modern medicine, all people could do was hope (and pray) that epidemics would go away on their own. When it became clear that a disease was inescapable – or endemic – societies often made strides to reframe disease as an integral part of life. This could also become the case with Covid-19.
Kenny’s book offers potential insight. In 17th century Japanese cities, attitudes to smallpox changed as the disease became endemic; by then, most people had been exposed as a child and subsequently recovered. Once people accept “that everyone is going to get smallpox,” Kenny says, they ritualized and normalized it as a milestone in childhood, making it a part of “the story of growing up.” .
It is too early to say how this process of normalization vis-à-vis the Covid will unfold. However, if infections become a normal part of the winter months, they may simply be absorbed into what is called cold and flu season. Much like smallpox in Japanese cities, this change will be reflected in the language and everyday expectations of people. Already, some are starting to use the term “Covid season”.
Effective medical interventions also make it easier for societies to come to terms with the idea of coexisting with disease. “My parents were terrified [of polio]”says Nancy Tomes, professor of history at Stony Brook University and author of The Gospel of Germs.. Tomes, on the other hand, was part of “the generation that went to local high school and got the lump of sugar,” referring to a common dispensing method for an orally administered polio vaccine.
“We stopped worrying about polio after that,” Tomes says.
Although Covid remains widespread, the advent of effective vaccines has quickly changed the extent of its threat. In March, when only 9.2% of Americans were fully immunized, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its social distancing guidelines to allow people with the immunity to congregate indoors. And on Thanksgiving, Joe Biden said the United States was “back” from pandemic hibernation – despite the nearly 100,000 new cases of Covid-19 still confirmed every day.
Finger pointing and misinformation
Unfortunately, history suggests that some negative behaviors related to the pandemic tend to persist after a disease becomes endemic or is eliminated. One of them is the disproportionate targeting of groups perceived as “outsiders” within mainstream society. When the pandemic subsides, Kenny says, the social restrictions that are likely to remain “are those that affect minority groups.”
Imposed in 1987, the xenophobic and homophobic travel ban imposed on HIV-positive people in the United States lasted 22 years. And today, people wrongly associated with Covid, such as those in Asia or Africa, are still harassed and excluded despite the full understanding that the coronavirus does not discern race.
A propensity for disinformation and conspiracy theories has also been associated with epidemics – “a shit show,” Tomes says, with a legacy “stretching back to every epidemic we have written records of.” Some of these falsehoods prove to be lasting. “There are still people who don’t believe that HIV causes AIDS,” she says.
During pandemics, groups of people also become susceptible to developing extreme opinions on topics that elicit strong opinions – like vaccination and personal freedom – that they did not initially have. Even after a pandemic is over, this phenomenon of “group polarization” can remain “in the background,” says Steven Taylor, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of The Psychology of Pandemics. . This polarization is likely to “wake up again when something similar happens” in the future.
Know what we can’t know (yet)
It is important to note that the return to normalcy will not occur uniformly across the world. Once people in rich countries become endemic, those in the south of the planet could continue to fight the coronavirus for a long time, as has been the case with a host of tropical diseases that have been all but forgotten in places like the United States.
Like all infectious diseases that have plagued the world before it, Sars-CoV-2 will hopefully fade into distant memory, for better or for worse. This oversight can bring relief, growth and recovery, but it could also leave us woefully unprepared for the next pandemic. The 1918 flu taught us that masking and social distancing can reduce deaths, Kenny says – a lesson we relearned too late in 2020.