We’re in the thick of it now.
A few months after a strange new disease emerged from a live animal market in Wuhan, China, more than 100,000 people in 85 countries worldwide have been infected with COVID-19.
Canada, for its part, still has a low case count but is seeing the beginnings of what it most feared, community spread.
The coronavirus threat is no longer abstract. People are beginning to ask tough questions: Should we cancel our travel plans? Should we be closing schools? Should we be working remotely to minimize social interactions?
Canada is also, like most countries in the world, starting to feel the economic impacts of the virus of fear. As people retrench spending on luxury items such as travel, as borders tighten, and as governments start spending big on health responses and stimulus packages, there are real fears of a coronavirus recession.
As the public-health, economic and political challenges posed by the coronavirus mount, it’s as good a time as any to ask ourselves the big question: How is this all going to end?
After all, you can’t have a road map, a strategy, if you don’t know your destination – or at least some possible destinations.
There are only two ways that this global outbreak/not-officially-a-pandemic can end: 1) We stop transmission of the coronavirus in its tracks or; 2) COVID-19 is here to stay.
The initial strategy, to contain the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, or in China, failed, though not for lack of trying. Chinese officials pulled out all the stops, including the largest mass quarantines in history, including draconian shutdowns of public transit and industry.
But the coronavirus lent credence to the adage that stopping a virus is like trying to stop the wind.
So what’s left now are mitigation measures. To limit community spread, we can test aggressively and treat promptly. If the case numbers creep up, especially in specific locales, we can also institute social-distancing measures such as closing schools – but, practically, those can only be temporary.
We can also hope that the weather lends a helping hand. Respiratory illnesses such as colds and the flu spread less readily when the weather warms up.
But we can’t be certain that this will be true of COVID-19. SARS and MERS (two recent novel coronaviruses) were not seasonal.
What could really help, of course, is a vaccine.
While there are a couple of dozen vaccine candidates in development, realistically it will take 18 to 24 months for a vaccine to be ready for prime time. In other words, we’re not going to vaccinate our way out of this. Coronavirus is highly unlikely to burn itself out and eradication is a rarity.
So, if COVID-19 is here to stay, what will life look like a year down the road?
Likely, it will look much like it did before the novel coronavirus emerged.
What that means is that the new bug will join the ever-bubbling brew of pathogens that challenge us daily.
We will start to look at it, for better or worse, like “another flu.”
As many have pointed out during the coronavirus outbreak, the flu causes ravages around the world, killing somewhere between 290,000 and 650,000 people annually while barely meriting mention in media coverage.
What we don’t know is if COVID-19 will infect people as broadly as seasonal influenza. In theory, it could, because no one has immunity.
Unless the coronavirus mutates – and there is no sign that it’s doing so – all the people who get infected will develop immunity, which would ultimately make it less of a threat.
In the short term, we don’t know if COVID-19 will kill more people, or if it will kill the same types of people that are now being felled by the flu – the frail elderly, the marginalized, people with compromised immune systems.
None of this is meant to suggest that we should shrug off the coronavirus.
But humans have a seemingly infinite capacity to adapt to everyday, routine horrors.
New threats scare us silly, but the well-entrenched, everyday threats, not so much.
We know from history that the way most epidemics or pandemics end is that fear winds down and people return to living their normal lives.
The ultimate solution will be a case of global amnesia, a new normal. And it’s simply too early to know what that new normal will look like.
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