Two years after the pandemic, much of Europe is holding its breath in the hope that Omicron is less virulent than earlier coronavirus variants, so that even record numbers of infections do not yield the deaths and disease rates of earlier waves. Also in the US Omicron spreads like wildfire. Leaders seem uncertain about what constraints to impose, and scramble to impose everything from adequate testing capability to support measures for renewed economic disruption.
We apparently did not control or learn the pandemic to optimize our policy responses, despite two years of experience. There is no excuse for this. Omicron, like any particular mutation, came unannounced. But the advent of mutations is a predictable – and predicted – outcome of infections that keep spreading, which the world has failed to prevent.
“Zero Covid” did not work because it was not tried in enough countries. The few governments with an uncompromising repression strategy have largely succeeded in keeping matters to an enviable minimal level. They suffered nor greater economic hardship nor, over time, more onerous deviations from normal behavior than countries that allow higher transmission rates.
On the contrary: clinging harder to the first signs of community infection makes it possible to relax faster and enjoy normal economic activity for longer. South Korea and New Zealand, for example, over time had lighter restrictions in place as the UK and parts of the US, and even as Sweden for much of the pandemic. The biggest cost of zero-Covid strategies – strict restrictions on travel across borders – is only necessary because partner countries were more tolerant of contamination. The lack of global commitment may indeed have made zero Covid unsustainable, although it is hardly a justification for those who actively undermine it.
The priority now is to deal with the reality that Covid-19 is here to stay. Since Omicron leaders were caught unprepared, the consequences of a mutation that is both more contagious and more virulent can hardly be imagined. But the risk of another, potentially more deadly, variant is undeniable. Scientists have long told us to expect frequent zoonotic infestations. Not thinking what it means is no longer forgiven. A whole new order of readiness is therefore essential. If waves of coronavirus variants, or new pathogens, are likely to hit us frequently, we need a system of emergency responses entrenched in legislation and practice. Everyone should know that it can be activated at short notice. Our best case future is one where “normality” can be shifted to a crisis regime with the push of a switch, when contamination intensifies.
Pre-planned emergency responses will specify three things. First, a set of rules of conduct, such as mandatory mask wear, distance, distance work, and testing. Second, a set of brakes on the activities that are most conducive to contamination – typically hospitality and live entertainment – may be differentiated according to participants’ likely immunity. Third, predictable economic support for the activities affected by such emergency measures, including leave and subsidies. Our inspiration should be other types of pre-planned emergency responses: fire and security drills, military war games, police playbooks for anti-terrorism operations. A more sinister analogy is evacuation advice historically given to the public for bombings and nuclear attacks.
The benefits of advance planning for pandemic outbreaks are threefold. First, economic damage is kept to a minimum if businesses know exactly what constraints and support schemes to expect should a pandemic emergency occur, and can organize their business model (and insurance) around such an event.
Second, advance planning greatly facilitates government decision-making. A ready-made measure to be “switched on” in a crisis is much preferable to reinventing the wheel every time – and more likely to avoid the mistakes of hasty decision-making. One can even hope that the existence of an emergency regime will focus the mind on promoting equipment stores and testing, tracking and vaccination capacity ahead of time rather than after the fact.
Third, the previous two benefits would reduce the political costs of early action. Procrastination was one of our deadliest enemies. What the examples above show is that it requires stricter restrictions to bring a higher infection rate under control. In other words, we limit social interactions to bring the “R-number” under one – but R must be kept under one longer if the case rate is allowed to rise too high beforehand.
To misunderstand this, the original sin of politicians who oppose restrictions is apparently for the sake of freedom or economic growth. Both fare better with the occasional quick introduction of a predictable emergency regime for a few weeks than under our current policy mess. In wars and pandemics, as former US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said about financial crises, “plan beats no plan”. Of course, details need to be updated regularly with the latest knowledge, for example, whose limitations infectious interaction best limit.
Planning for a permanent pandemic, rather than pretending it does not exist, is what learning to live with the virus really means.