Never mind how virulent the coronavirus is. The key point is that it is now endemic.
Perhaps it will become milder over time, perhaps it won’t. Obviously, we must hope that it does, that it follows the same trajectory as other viruses, becoming less lethal but more transmissible until it joins that sprawling family of rhinoviruses, adenoviruses, and, indeed, coronaviruses that we collectively call “colds.” …
If we think, for example, that widespread vaccination might heap high a protective rampart, then there are arguments for vaccine passports, possibly even for compulsory inoculation. If we think that the disease can be eliminated, then there are arguments for stringent suppression measures. If we think that dangerous new mutations can be kept out, then there are arguments for border restrictions and quarantines.
But what if none of these things is true?
Where we are now:
What if COVID-19 is as ineradicable and endemic as influenza? What if it comes and goes seasonally, leaving its victims with a dollop of immunity that wanes over time? What if, like the flu, it regularly mutates, meaning that recovery from one version bestows only partial protection against others? What if it is checked rather than halted by vaccines — again, like flu rather than, say, polio?
If we are dealing with such a disease, a recurrent respiratory virus, then almost all the measures that we have put in place around the world are pointless.
Let me repeat that: Almost all of them are pointless.
Restrictions designed for an epidemic make no sense when applied to an endemic disease. Why test people at airports when the virus is everywhere? Why require masks when almost all of us going to be infected, probably several times during our lifetimes? Why try to slow things up by closing schools or banning large gatherings? …
The omicron strain makes pitilessly clear that the virus will carry on mutating and that no country can keep new variants at bay. …
Should we not now accept that the disease, like the poor, will be always with us? Its worst effects are mitigated by past infections or by vaccination, but it can still be nasty and, in a small minority of cases, fatal. It will, in other words, be like an especially brutal kind of flu, coming back each winter, sometimes milder, sometimes harsher.
How do we respond to the flu? Most of us pick up a dose of immunity when we are relatively young and healthy. As we get older, we can avail ourselves of vaccines, which are updated annually to take account of the latest strains. I’m not saying it will be easy or cost-free. COVID-19 is, at least in its present form, a more serious killer than the flu. But even if it does not evolve to lower virulence, even if we are left to rely on vaccines, treatments, and other medical interventions, we know that we can get by.
The alternative, as is now clear, is to shut down in response to each new variant. Had that been the proposal two years ago, had we been told that we were facing a lifetime of chronic closures, we would not have countenanced it.
Or use anti-virals.