“The end of the pandemic will not be televised,” write Princeton historian David Robertson and University of Maryland pharmacy professor Peter Doshi in the health care journal BMJ. “There is no universal definition of the epidemiological parameters of the end of a pandemic,” they point out. “By what metric, then, will we know that it is actually over?”
After reviewing the history of three 20th century influenza pandemics, including the Spanish Flu pandemic that killed an estimated 675,000 Americans, Robertson and Doshi find that there will be no dramatic “end.” Instead, the pandemic will “gradually fade as society adjusts to living with the new disease agent and social life returns to normal.”
Robertson and Doshi point out that the tolls of previous pandemics were not recorded with daily updates on digital dashboards that anyone can easily access through the internet. “Pandemic dashboards provide endless fuel, ensuring the constant newsworthiness of the covid-19 pandemic, even when the threat is low,” they argue. “In doing so, [pandemic dashboards] might prolong the pandemic by curtailing a sense of closure or a return to pre-pandemic life.” Their advice? “Deactivating or disconnecting ourselves from the dashboards may be the single most powerful action towards ending the pandemic.”
In May 2020, just three months into the COVID-19 pandemic when there had been only 1.4 million cases and 82,000 deaths in the U.S., I cited an article in which New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata asked, “When will the Covid-19 pandemic end? And how?” She noted that pandemics medically end when disease incidence and death rates plummet as herd immunity is achieved through either mass infection or mass vaccination. On the other hand, epidemics socially end when people grow tired of panic mode and learn to live with a disease.
In June 2021, as increasing numbers of Americans were getting vaccinated, I suggested that the end of the pandemic and a return to normalcy was in sight because daily COVID-19 deaths were approaching those of a bad flu season. I concluded that “barring an outbreak of a new highly transmissible and vaccine-resistant COVID-19 virus variant, normality is well in sight if not already here.”
President Joe Biden gave a White House speech on July 4 “celebrating Independence Day and Independence from COVID-19.” Biden did, however, caution, “Don’t get me wrong, COVID-19 is—has not been vanquished. We all know powerful variants have emerged, like the Delta variant, but the best defense against these variants is to get vaccinated.”
Well, a highly transmissible and vaccine-resistant variant has indeed emerged, but there are hopeful indications that it may cause less severe disease. And the best defense remains vaccination and booster shots.
A truly amazing best case scenario would be that infections from an exceptionally contagious yet extremely mild omicron variant speed the process of achieving herd immunity that could immunize us at least somewhat against future coronavirus variants. In any case, the BMJ authors may well be right that turning off our screens might improve our mental health—still, it will not make the virus go away.