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Recent pronouncements by the World Health Organization (WHO) suggest its view of COVID-19 is evolving from a pandemic threat that’s novel and spreading to an endemic threat that has established itself as just another new contestant in the vast ecosystem of organisms that interact periodically with humans.
This suggests a need to change strategy. After all, what one might do to repel a threat that is new, identifiable, perhaps preventable and coming from outside the body is probably not useful in attempting to manage a threat that has settled in for the duration; is both inside of us and all around us; is largely invisible; is ever-changing; and is driven by forces beyond humanity and its control.
From a biological perspective, one could argue that it was foolish for our health authorities to have assumed that the course of COVID-19 would end any differently than in the establishment of an endemic presence in human existence. There were virtually no rational grounds for that assumption either in theory or practice. Smallpox, which had fairly unusual characteristics that made it amenable to prevention by vaccination, has been the one exception to the rule.
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Viruses are unpleasant aspects of nature that are beyond humanity’s ability to eliminate or control. Like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes, comets, meteors, solar flares, cosmic rays, bad taste in cologne, and eruptions of haiku poetry, some threats become endemic no matter what we might wish.
Just about everything our governments chose to do in response to the threat posed by COVID-19 was based on wishful thinking, fallacious thinking, or in some cases, what looks a lot like opportunistically power-hungry thinking.
This is especially true of social-distancing mandates and lockdowns that go beyond historically proven quarantining of people who are detectably infectious.
And these measures have clearly failed: COVID-19 has spread virtually unchecked regardless of how stringent a jurisdiction’s social distancing, lockdown or rule-making has been. It’s endemic after only one year.
But instead of admitting our failures, we’re locked in a gambling addict’s cycle of doubling down, clinging to a superstition that we’re somehow due to win one by placing the same exact bet after incurring so many losses.
And we have incurred a lot of losses. What governments have done in response to COVID-19 has been remarkably injurious to humanity’s general health. Though a lot of people live in denial about this, the human economy is an integral part of Earth’s social-ecological system. You can’t randomly and arbitrarily slam the brakes on economic flows in such an integrated system without slowing growth, causing economic contraction and inflicting a great deal of injury, not only to people, but to the environment that’s integrally dependent on human activities as well.
So a new year, a new plan:
First and foremost, stop doubling down on dumb. End the lockdowns and social-distancing mandates. It will take decades to dig out from the avalanche of economic losses that will pour in over the next five years as it is. Let’s not deepen it.
Politicians should just point to the WHO’s endemic pronouncement as a reason to change plans without seeming to reverse themselves or take blame for failures of the previous response to COVID-19. They were happy enough to cite the WHO’s authority before. Here’s another chance.
Second, bring on the vaccines but don’t screw it up for politics. I’m a big supporter of the idea of vaccination and have rarely met a vaccine I didn’t take if I thought it would benefit me or society at large. But do it right: those with the highest risk of death should go first. Anyone who wants to distribute COVID-19 vaccines in any other way is not seeking to prevent death but to profit by it.
Finally, stop being reactive and start being proactive: We need to refocus our efforts on how to identify and protect the most vulnerable among us from this initial spread, and from what are likely to be periodic resurgences of COVID-19 and its variants as part of a new normal in the global social-ecological system we all call home.
We also need to make lemonade from lemons and learn all we can about doing better at protecting ourselves from viruses and, most importantly, developing vaccines quickly, safely and effectively.
Kenneth Green is a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.