The WHO’s highest alert is the declaration of a “public health emergency of international concern”, or PHEIC. It did this in January 2020. Unfortunately, almost everyone ignored it, so in March the WHO had to unofficially “declare a pandemic” so people would sit up and pay attention.
This is an example of the term pandemic being used politically rather than scientifically. And that should immediately make us skeptical of those who want to declare it completed or unfinished.
If declaring a pandemic is as much a political act as anything else, we have to ask: who wins and who loses?
The pandemic that is over is very good for people who own vacant office buildings or cruise ships. It is very good for political leaders dealing with elections, such as President Biden.
It’s not so good for vaccine makers (whose stock prices fell on Biden’s statement) or scientists or journalists.
Most importantly, it’s not good for those in precarious employment who don’t get paid sick leave and are suddenly cut off from the government’s isolation payments.
To expand on this, take a look at all the globally circulating viruses that society is doing not think of pandemics, such as HIV or hepatitis C. “Any scientist in the world would tell you they are pandemics,” said Professor Peter White, an expert in the history of pandemics at the University of NSW.
These viruses most affect marginalized minorities—gay men and drug users—people White notes are often portrayed as “marginalized populations doing naughty things” who “don’t deserve a reprieve.”
It is society that ends pandemics, not biology. “The ‘end’ comes when daily life is no longer severely disrupted by the disease, rather than when the disease disappears,” said Tiarne Barratt, who has studied responses to pandemics throughout history at the University of NSW.
Nineteenth-century England used to celebrate a general decline in cholera epidemics — and a return to normal life — with a Thanksgiving Day. Modern England celebrated Freedom Day in mid-2021 when the government dropped COVID restrictions.
“From this perspective, we could therefore consider the COVID-19 pandemic over now, as the disruption to daily life and the state of emergency are over,” Barratt said.
Let’s remember Biden’s quote: “When you notice that no one is wearing masks. Everyone seems to be in pretty good shape.”
One way to read this is Biden saying the pandemic is over because we treat it like it is. This makes some sense. In Australia, our lives have returned to something close to what they were before 2020, with a little extra virus hygiene. Media monitoring data from Streem somewhat backs this up, suggesting that COVID media coverage remains high – but other things are now drawing our attention as well, such as the war in Ukraine, politics and the Queen’s death.
Give me the numbers
Globally, the moving average of confirmed COVID-19 deaths is as low as it has been since early 2020.
Worldwide, new cases fluctuate around half a million per day. Excluding the early 2022 Omicron peak and that’s about where we’ve been since the virus settled in the population. The chart below really tells us that the virus is here to stay.
But the global picture obscures what is happening locally. Look at the death rate in Australia – apart from that, you could see these numbers and conclude that our pandemic is just getting started.
“We’ve had a particularly unusual pandemic trajectory,” said Professor Jodie McVernon, director of epidemiology at the Doherty Institute. “We’ve gone from nothing to worse. Most people have gone from terrible to less. And that’s a tough headroom for a lot of Australians.”
What’s to come? At best, says University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakely, our current variant BA.5 is “evolutionary as good as it gets”. We will have waves of infection caused by waning immunity, “but each time it comes back, the effect on us will be less severe”. (I am inclined to consider this unlikely – virologists do not believe that the virus has examined all its possible mutations; BA2.75.2 is is already making scientists nervous.)
Mid-case scenario: The virus continues to spew out more and more antibody-evasive variants. Each causes a new wave of infections. “That’s not too bad,” says Blakely, because those infections in combination with vaccination should offer good lasting protection against serious diseases. This is our experience so far – a new variant means a new wave of disease, but not necessarily a higher number of deaths.
Worst case scenario: a black swan. The virus raises a variant that is more antibody evasive and more deadly. We are all back to work at home and wearing masks. “We have to accept as a society that we can’t rule that out,” Blakely says. “We need to know it’s there in case we need it.”
Declaring something a pandemic drives people to action. Some fear that if we say the pandemic is over, complacency will set in. People are generally less likely to mask and vaccinate.
“If ‘the pandemic is over’ means we’re just going back to how things were, I think we missed an opportunity,” McVernon says.
The important similarity between Blakely’s three scenarios is that the virus will always be with us, and there will always be some degree of suffering long after we have moved on as a society.
As with most things in society, the damage is likely to strike the most disadvantaged.
When declaring an end to a pandemic, we must be careful of the people we leave behind.
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