After more than a year of the pandemic, everyone is ready for this to end. It’s just exhausting. The lockdowns, the reopenings, the constant turmoil about what this will mean for our jobs and lives. The ever-present fear that the worst will happen to ourselves or someone we know and love.
I’ve gotta say: pandemics are no fun.
Fortunately, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines are here, and they’re already being rolled out across the globe, with hundreds of millions getting safety injected into their arms already.
But that raises the question: what will the world look like when this is all over? What happens when a pandemic has run its path?
Bangs and Whimpers
The first thing I should say is that this is all speculation. We really haven’t seen the end of a global pandemic on this scale for 100 years, and in the globalized world of the 2020s whatever we do see is probably going to be pretty different to anything that came before.
That being said, there are some things we can make reasonable inferences about given the nature of COVID-19 and what we already know about transmission.
One thing we can say with some certainty is that COVID-19 is probably never going away entirely. There are very few ways that we could completely eradicate the disease, and given that the virus does mutate over time and reinfections — particularly over the 5–10 year timeline — are not unlikely, it’s probable that we’ll never be entirely rid of the disease. We can even see this happening in real time, with new variants that are already evading the defenses that our bodies have built up against the original virus.
The caveat to this pessimism is that it is probably possible to eradicate COVID-19. We famously did it with smallpox, and we have indications that the vaccines available are potentially good enough to halt onwards transmission of the disease in most people who get them. In theory, with global coordination and goodwill, we could stop the disease in its tracks.
Given the last 12 months of global confusion and mismanagement, however, such an effort seems unlikely to occur.
But even if COVID-19 doesn’t disappear entirely, I’m still quite optimistic about the relatively close future. Why?
It all comes down to the vaccines.
Vaccines Are Awesome
As I’ve written before, the COVID-19 vaccines are one of the greatest scientific achievements of the last 100 years — not just the production, but the decades of work that went into making it possible to have vaccine within 12 months of a new disease occurring as well.
Now, we don’t know if all vaccines prevent onwards transmission — you giving the disease to another person — or if they just make most infections less severe/asymptomatic. But the thing is, while that’s important, it’s not the only important thing about these immunizations. One thing we do know with some certainty is that they are likely to protect against severe disease and death (although whether this works against newer variants is still unknown).
We also know, partially through my own work, that COVID-19 is most dangerous for older adults, problematic for middle-aged people, and not as much of a problem for young adults and children.
What this means, taken together, is that once the majority of the over-50s in a population are vaccinated, the disease will become much less severe. Once you’ve vaccinated most of the population, even if the disease is still spreading it’ll probably be much less of an issue.
The pandemic might live on, but it will finally be something we can live with, rather than something that rules our lives. Eventually, after booster shots and years of immunity, we’ll probably be left with another virus that resembles the common cold.
It’s very hard to say when this will happen. It’s probable that every country has a different threshold for the point when COVID-19 loses it’s edge. In some places like Israel, where the majority of over-60s and a large proportion of the remainder have been vaccinated, you’d expect it pretty soon. In others, particularly the developing world, you’d expect it to take a bit longer to achieve.
I hate predicting the future. There are so many unknowns, so many things that could go wrong. It’s possible the virus will mutate faster than vaccines can account for, plausible that any kind of ending is further away than we’d hope.
But given our success, I’m struck with a bit of optimism. Maybe not this month, maybe not even this year, but in the near future we will probably see and end to COVID-19 as it tails off to become just another common cold.