The author is a science commentator
It’s been exactly two years since Saturday I first wrote about an unexplained viral pneumonia affecting 59 people in a Chinese city I’ve never heard of. The apparent link to a living animal market, reflecting the origins of Sars-1, gave me a vague sense of foresight, but no idea of what was to come. The World Health Organization has since recorded 300 million infections and 5.46 million deaths.
Two years later, the start of 2022 is a resurgence of previous winters: UK hospitals are filled with Covid-19 patients; coronavirus briefings, in which advisers Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty Cassandras play with a rocky face for Boris Johnson’s Pangloss, are back on UK screens; the reopening of schools amid widespread distribution feels as much at a knife-edge this year as it did last January.
Yet it is 2022, not 2020 or 2021. Vaccines and antiviral drugs have changed the pandemic game in high-income countries. It is now largely the unvaccinated who occupy intensive care beds. Science delivered what was asked of him.
In addition, however, many lessons remain unlearned. The first is that vaccines alone, although protective against serious illness and death, will not end the pandemic. They reduce transmission, but they do not stop it. Moreover, much of our interconnected world remains unvaccinated. Both factors allow for continuous distribution, which runs the risk of creating variants, such as Omicron, that can evade immunity.
It has long been a compelling argument for both the vaccination of the world and the control of transmission – but the former is still a distant prospect. Less than 4 percent of adults in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has been fully immunized. The IMF warned in October that the ‘big vaccination gap’ could cost the world economy $ 5.3tn over the next five years.
As for the transmission, we know that the spread of this virus in the air can be delayed with measures such as masks, ventilation, teleworking, testing and detection, isolation, quarantine – and physical distance where necessary. This ‘vaccine-plus’ approach is emphatically not a ‘lockdown’, but rather a way to prevent it.
This has not stopped some countries, such as England, from going their own chaotic way. Johnson’s unwillingness to impose measures in light of hyper-transferable Omicron, despite expert advice, has left the NHS overwhelmed. Omicron may be less serious than Delta, but patients still need beds and staff. Hospitals, hit by record levels of Covid-related staff absences, suspend normal services and declare critical incidents; army medics are being drafted.
Such is the daily infection numbers – 180,000 new cases on Thursday – that tests are now becoming scarce and isolation periods shortened to avoid staff shortages in critical infrastructure. Inadequate testing means losing sight of the virus. Countries with uncontrolled distribution run the risk of accumulating uncertain future health burdens, including long Covid, nurturing new varieties and being listed on the red list as non-going areas. Mass infection also does not protect against future waves of disease. Clearly, the only viable way to learn to live with Covid-19, even a lighter form, is to live with much less of it.
Yet countries like the UK and the US still clinging to the myth that health and wealth are a zero-sum game. In fact, by slowing down the spread, countries like South Korea and Taiwan have largely prevented long-term restrictions, kept deaths and diseases to a minimum, and prospered economically. South Korea, with a population of 52 million, has seen fewer than 6,000 deaths. The UK, by contrast, lost 150,000 lives to the pandemic; in the US the toll exceeds the 675,000 deaths from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. I did not expect to normalize such high levels of avoidable suffering in affluent economies. Doing better requires political leadership, including reliable health messages and a willingness to act early. Perfect data is the enemy of good pandemic policy.
Perhaps the last, somewhat obvious lesson took me a long time to learn: that a pandemic is not formed by a virus alone, but by our collective response to it. We have all come to this outbreak, saddled with our previous hopes, beliefs, prejudices and fears. I never expected that, in the face of the worst pandemic of a century, so many of my fellow citizens would claim that Covid-19 would be a farce, reject safe and effective vaccines, spread conspiracy theories, and enemies of scientists, doctors and nurses would make. .
It was the Vaccine confidence project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that encouraged me to get involved with those who think differently, rather than judge them. This is how I learned that, for one considerate young adult of my knowledge, the rejection of the Covid sting was an act of political rebellion.
For some, vaccine refusal has nothing to do with mistrust in science and everything to do with maintaining personal agency in a crisis that has left many powerless. I would once have sympathized with Emmanuel Macron and decided to “Go away”The unvaccinated in response to record infection levels. Now, after gratefully queuing up for my third dose among those emerging for their first, I wonder if empathy might not help end the pandemic sooner.