“When will the pandemic end?” many people have asked themselves. Nearly two years of COVID-19 circulating globally has taken a stark toll on many people’s health, both physical and mental. In the face of this tragic event, it is understandable to wonder when and how we might rid the earth of the virus and be able to go “back to normal.”
However, this is the truth: the virus likely won’t be eradicated — at least, not in the near future. To date, only one infectious disease has been completely wiped from existence in humans: smallpox, an ancient virus that originated around 3 BC and was declared eradicated in 1980 BCE. Even immediately before the COVID-19 pandemic, the world contended with many viruses.
But we can coexist with COVID-19 too, and here’s why:
Experts say that the COVID-19 pandemic is predicted to become endemic. This means that rather than spanning the globe in an uncontrollable spread, local outbreaks will significantly lessen in both size and frequency and occur at a much slower pace. Immunologist Yonaton Grad says,
“The expectation that COVID-19 will become endemic essentially means that the pandemic will not end with the virus disappearing; instead, the optimistic view is that enough people will gain immune protection from vaccination and from natural infection such that there will be less transmission and much less COVID-19-related hospitalization and death, even as the virus continues to circulate.”
As Dr. Grad states, immunity is the key to turning a pandemic endemic, and history bears witness to this fact. In fact, today’s common cold was born in its own serious pandemic nearly 100 years ago. Viral descendants of the 1918 influenza pandemic, an avian-borne H1NI influenza spread that killed an estimated minimum of 50 million people worldwide, still circulate today. Because medicine has advanced and people continuously both naturally acquired immunity and, once it became possible in 1945, got vaccinated, the H1N1 influenza family of viruses now poses a significantly reduced threat to global public health.
While it took 27 years following the 1918 Pandemic for an influenza vaccine to be developed, a COVID-19 vaccine was proved safe and effective in the United States about a year after the pandemic began. Countries such as Russia utilized vaccination even sooner. With vaccination made available one year in rather than 27, there is even greater hope that COVID-19 deaths are declining and will continue to decline significantly in the years to come, and that people will be able to once again enjoy aspects of pre-COVID-19 life.
The weakening of COVID-19 is not enough to peacefully coexist with it. Even though the common cold (and likewise, a mild case of COVID-19) is not severe for most people, it can severely impact many, including elders and immunocompromised people. The pandemic has instilled in us the habits of mask-wearing and social distancing when these measures are most necessary, and those at higher risk for severe illness from a weakened COVID-19 infection may benefit from the actions of those around them. Some measures of mask-wearing and social distancing, in addition to good personal hygiene practices, may still be necessary for the foreseeable future to ensure that every person — regardless of health status — has the best chance of living a full and happy life.
The pandemic has made people conscious of their health and the health of others around them. This consciousness, combined with vaccine efforts, might not make the virus go away, but it will make the pandemic livable. While it is paramount to validate that the COVID-19 pandemic is devastating and has caused loss beyond words, we can also consider that, as humanity continues to face global crises such as climate change, the importance of the medical and humanitarian collaboration the pandemic has caused will not soon be forgotten.