There will be no ‘victory’ or ‘armistice day’ – the reality of how pandemics end is far more complicated than that
The Covid pandemic has entered a perplexing phase, challenging our beliefs about what the best responses are and how we should behave. Is Omicron now “just like the flu”, meaning we can relax – or does that overlook the continuing crisis in hospitals, the record hospitalisation rates for children, the continuing deadly danger for elderly and clinically vulnerable people, and the lengthening shadow of long Covid? Is it time, as the government has decided in England, to throw away our masks and perhaps to abandon self-isolation rules, or is that recklessly optimistic (if not just politically expedient for the prime minister)?
Our pandemic narratives are splintering. Once, aside from a handful of noisy libertarians who insisted that lockdowns and mask mandates were violations of civil liberty, most people accepted that restrictions were necessary to prevent the health system from imploding and to reduce the risks for vulnerable people. Now, even some experts who previously advised caution and criticised lax and tardy government strategy, such as the public health expert Devi Sridhar of Edinburgh University, have suggested that the virus has been largely “defanged” and that it’s time to “move forward” with our lives. Others react to such suggestions with horror, pointing out that this isn’t an option open to all. There’s much talk of the virus having become “endemic” – but that notion of a “persistent, low or moderate level of disease”, generally in a specific geographical region, is a long way from the exponential rise, and now fall, that we have just seen nationwide. It’s likely that it’s where we’ll end up eventually. But the eagerness to reach for the term now reflects an increasing sense that, one way or another, we will have to learn to live with the virus, as the health secretary, Sajid Javid, said last week.
Philip Ball is a science writer. His books include The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China