“After the pandemic is over” must be one of the most common phrases of 2021. We are certainly all “guilty” of this kind of optimism, waiting for the day when we can get on a plane, have dinner with friends and we hug our loved ones. Is the end of the pandemic near?
In recent months, all governments have unveiled multi-step plans to combat the third wave of the virus. The vaccination campaign is underway, but so are the protests of people who do not understand that we must be patient.
Looking to the end of the pandemic and as vaccination takes place (although uneven), people around the world turn their attention to the Easter holidays. However, history tells us that the end of a pandemic is rarely easy to date exactly.
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 it was the deadliest in history. It has infected around 500 million people worldwide and killed between 20 and 50 million. As today, citizens were subject to social restrictions and were ordered to wear masks. The pandemic eased, but predicting its precise end was almost impossible at the time. And even after it was over, in fact, it wasn’t over.
In 1920, several newspapers reported the recurrence of the flu. About 5,000 cases were reported in Chicago within six days, and theaters were ordered to close. Later that year, “drastic measures” were put in place to control the spread of the flu in New York, following an emergency meeting of transportation authorities, theater and movie theater owners and department store representatives. At the same time, 60 people died from the flu in Paris.
The end of the pandemic is approaching, but we do not have a clear date
Subsequent waves of the virus have swept through European and North American cities for years after the alleged end of the pandemic. Therefore, it is not surprising that there is little evidence in historical records to commemorate the end of the terrible virus.
Today’s coronavirus pandemic is, of course, different from the 1918 flu. Largely because we have several highly effective vaccines. Vaccines are a powerful tool and many people’s hopes for the end of the COVID pandemic are based on messenger RNA technology. However, while vaccines have played a crucial role in previous efforts to control infectious diseases, their ability to bring pandemics to a rapid and definitive end is much more limited.
Take polio as an example. A vaccine for this disease was developed in the 1950s. Its inventor Jonas Salk became an American hero, but it took almost three decades for polio to be controlled in Britain.
Medical historians know that pandemics and epidemics are social phenomena. As a result, their end happens in two ways. There is a medical conclusion of a pandemic, when the incidence of the disease decreases and the death rates decrease. But there is also the social end, when the fear of infection decreases and social restrictions gradually decrease.
History tells us to be patient
Coronavirus rates may drop, fewer people will be hospitalized and fewer deaths, people’s anxieties may disappear and life may return to normal – in that order. Or, on the contrary, the rates could remain the same, people, getting tired of the restrictions, still get sick and start to organize parties and no longer follow the rules in general.
We must also remember that COVID-19 is a global disease and that different countries will have different social and medical conclusions.
HIV / AIDS spread to Europe and North America in the 1980s and 1990s. Infection rates have dropped dramatically since then, and many HIV-positive people live long and healthy lives in developing countries. And yet, as of 2019, nearly 40 million people are infected with HIV worldwide and we are still facing what the World Health Organization calls a “global epidemic,” the very fact that the geographical scope of the disease has changed.
As richer nations continue to be vaccinated, the end of the pandemic for them could soon become a reality. What about the rest of the world? When will developing countries see a similar conclusion?
Wherever you look, it is unlikely that the pandemic will end. We have only managed to successfully eradicate a single disease (smallpox), and for any other epidemic or pandemic in history, their end has been messy, prolonged and uneven.
Although we may all need a dose of optimism, rather than planning parties or celebrations, our time now might be better spent thinking about what kind of future we look forward to and how we put it into practice the lessons I’ve learned in the last year.