By Yascha Mounk
It feels like everyone I know has COVID.
During earlier stages of the pandemic, most of my friends were spared a direct brush with the virus. Perhaps they used to be much more careful. Or perhaps they were just lucky.Whatever the reason, their good fortune has now run out. Seven close friends recently told me they had tested positive. Several more strongly suspect they have COVID but are unable to get their hands on a test. Thankfully, everyone has decidedly mild symptoms (no doubt in part because they all are vaccinated and they are not in high-risk categories).
The pattern among my circle of friends fits with what’s unfolding in South Africa, where the coronavirus’s new Omicron variant was first identified. The number of cases in the country shot up quickly, but the number of deaths has so far increased much, much more gradually—possibly indicating that Omicron is more contagious but causes less severe disease than previous variants.
Early signs from other places are a little more concerning, however. And even a significantly less deadly strain could cause a whole lot of carnage if it spreads very quickly.
Muddy early data mean that, for now at least, the immediate epidemiological future is uncertain. We could be in for a few months of relatively mild inconvenience before Omicron goes out with a whimper. Or we could be about to experience yet another exponential rise in hospitalizations and deaths.
And yet I wager that, whatever course Omicron—or future strains of the disease—might take, we are about to experience the end of the pandemic as a social phenomenon.
From the first days of the pandemic, both experts and laypeople have disagreed about the extent to which we should engage in social distancing or government-imposed shutdowns. At every stage, some people wanted to take radical steps while others were more worried about the costs and drawbacks of such interventions. And that still holds true today. But the continuous fights over masks and vaccine mandates obscure the extent to which the field of battle has shifted in recent months.
Despite skyrocketing caseloads, few pundits or politicians are proposing strict measures to slow the virus’s spread. The appetite for shutdowns or other large-scale social interventions simply isn’t there. This means that we have effectively given up on “slowing the spread” or “flattening the curve.” To a much greater degree than during previous waves, we have quietly decided to throw up our hands.
The Biden administration’s latest policies are indicative of this shift. According to The New York Times, White House plans include “sending military troops to help hospitals cope with Covid surges; deploying ventilators to places that need them; invoking a wartime law to accelerate production of Covid tests; sending free tests to people next month; and opening more vaccination clinics.” These are all sensible measures. But, to use a metaphor from climate-change discourse, they are predominantly in the realm of adaptation: The goal is to help us cope with a surge of cases, not to prevent one from happening in the first place.
Reality may force some adjustments to this strategy over the next weeks and months. If Omicron starts to send patients to ICUs in the tens of thousands, bringing hospitals to the brink of collapse, both politicians and citizens are going to respond. But if the goal had once been to stop an emergency from arising, serious restrictions like shutdowns are now thinkable only if we get into a situation in which the emergency is already plain for all to see.
Scientists have their own way of deciding that a pandemic is over. But one useful social-scientific marker is when people have gotten used to living with the ongoing presence of a particular pathogen. By that definition, the massive surge of Omicron infections that is currently coursing through scores of developed countries without eliciting more than a half-hearted response marks the end of the pandemic.
Will the “new normal” mean that the disease poses less of a risk? Or will people ignore COVID even as it continues to kill hundreds of thousands of people every year?
There is some real reason to anticipate the former, more hopeful, scenario. Viruses are most dangerous when they are introduced into a population that has never had contact with them before. The more “immunologically naive” people are, the more of them are likely to suffer from bad outcomes. This suggests that the next few months could provide us with significant protection against future strains of the virus: Once a large portion of the population is exposed to Omicron, humanity will be a lot less immunologically naive, which might help us better handle future strains of the coronavirus without a significant increase in mortality.
This isn’t a foregone conclusion, however. Omicron could turn out to afford those it infects with very brief or very weak immunity against other strains. If we’re unlucky, some future strain could turn out to be (at least) as infectious as Omicron and (at least) as deadly as Delta.
Clearly, the severity of future strains is of huge moral significance. And equally clearly, what we should do in response to future waves of the virus depends, at least in part, on the nature of the threat we will face. (A model response would also take into account the aftereffects of COVID, which seem to last a long time in many patients, including some who initially had mild symptoms.) And yet, my guess as to what we will do no longer turns on these matters. The United States now seems poised to respond to future waves with a collective sigh and a shrug.
When I was growing up in Germany, I was fascinated by news reports about life in very dangerous places. Residents of Baghdad or Tel Aviv seemed to put themselves in danger simply by going shopping or meeting friends for a cup of coffee. How, I wondered with a mixture of horror and admiration, could anybody be willing to accept such an existential risk for such a trivial pleasure?
But the truth of the matter is that virtually all humans have, for virtually all of recorded history, faced daily risks of disease or violent death that are far greater than those that the residents of developed countries currently face. And despite the genuine horrors of the past 24 months, that holds true even now.
Is our drive to live life and socialize in the face of such dangers foolhardy? Or is it inspiring? I don’t know. But good or bad, it is unlikely to change. The determination to get on with our lives is deeply and perhaps unchangeably human.
In that sense, the spring of 2020 will be remembered as one of the most extraordinary periods in history—a time when people completely withdrew from social life to slow the spread of a dangerous pathogen. But what was possible for a few months has turned out to be unsustainable for years, let alone decades.
Whatever damage Omicron might wreak in the immediate future, we will, most likely, soon lead lives that look a lot more like they did in the spring of 2019 than in the spring of 2020.
Yascha Mounk is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the founder of Persuasion.
Credit: The Atlantic