The Future of the Pandemic
Covid-19 isn’t going away. But what could its trajectory look like, as measures around the world are relaxed?
It is clear at this point that - contrary to misguided predictions - the coronavirus will be with us for a rather long time.
One round of social distancing — closing schools and workspaces, restricting the sizes of gatherings, lockdowns of different intensity and duration — will prove insufficient in containing the disease in the long-run.
However, with economic and social hardship mounting, governments have got little choice but to slowly open up their schools and businesses. Two recent studies mapped out the possible shapes of the coronavirus trajectory, as life around the world gets underway again.
Scenario number 1 depicts an initial wave of cases — the one at present — followed by an irregular series of “peaks and troughs” that will steadily diminish over a year or two.
Scenario No. 2 posits that the current wave will be followed by a more profound spike in autumn, or perhaps a winter peak, with subsequent smaller waves. This progression most resembles the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic.
Scenario No. 3 shows an intense spring peak followed by a “slow burn” with less pronounced ups and downs.
What is clear overall is that a one-time social distancing effort will not suffice to control the epidemic in the long term.
Hotly debated herd immunity may also prove difficult to reach. One figure from a paper published by the University of Minnesota modelled the gradual increase in population immunity in response to intermittent social distancing.
The threshold for herd immunity in the model is 55 percent of the population. This represents the level of immunity that would be needed for the disease to stop spreading in the population without other measures.
When we succeed in social distancing — so that we don’t overwhelm the healthcare system — fewer people are infected, which is exactly the goal. Though if infection leads to immunity, successful social distancing also implies that more people remain susceptible to the disease. As a result, once we lift social distancing measures, the virus will quite possibly spread again as it did before the lockdowns.
So how do we ease restrictions, without sacrificing thousands of lives? A vaccine would be the ultimate weapon against the coronavirus and the best route back to normal life. Therapeutic drugs might likewise turn the tide in the fight against Covid-19. Combine that with rigorous testing and contact tracing — where infected patients are identified and their recent contacts alerted and quarantined — and the future begins to look a little brighter.
May marks a new phase of the coronavirus pandemic in Switzerland. Across the country, retail stores, restaurants, and other businesses are beginning to reopen. Though temporary setbacks are possible, if not likely, covid-19 won’t last forever. Early evidence from countries that have led the way in lowering community transmission looks hopeful. Countries like Denmark, Taiwan and Australia have demonstrated how life can continue with the virus.
Declining transmission rates offer hope for a semblance of normal life. But even as we revive our economies and open up schools, relief combines with risk. Widespread testing, tracing and social distancing could allow for a controlled reopening. But to prevent a second outbreak, caution is required on behalf of everyone.