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What will our long-term peace with COVID-19 look like?

A child looks on a she attends the New Year's Eve celebrations in Times Square, as the Omicron Covid-19 variant continues to spread, in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., December 31, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah Beier

New Year's Eve celebrations were held as people increasingly accept the risks posed by COVID-19. Image: REUTERS/Hannah Beier

John Letzing
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  • It seems clear that the coronavirus will endure in one form or another.
  • So experts now argue for a ‘new normal’ strategy for COVID-19.
  • They say Omicron may be nudging the disease into an endemic phase.

On New Year’s Eve I watched revelers navigate crowded sidewalks on the fringes of San Francisco’s financial district, headed to events like a Gatsby-style bash with bottle service and a Black & White Ball in a mall.

The day before, the city had registered 1,820 new cases of COVID-19 – just two weeks after the 7-day rolling average was still hovering below 200. These partygoers likely realized what they were risking. Yet here they were, determined and decked out in evening wear.

A few days later and a bit further to the south, a line of people waiting for COVID-19 tests stretched six city blocks. The surge was official. The mayor nonetheless refrained from triggering any new restrictions.

We seem to be making a volatile peace with the pandemic. Taking more of what we can in bursts of “normal” life and accepting existential uncertainty in return.

covid-19 declining death toll
Covid-19 Declining Death Toll Image: World Economic Forum

The idea of simply eradicating COVID-19 like smallpox seems more unattainable every day. Instead, a growing familiarity with the disease, effective vaccines that make it possible to record fewer deaths, and political considerations have nudged us away from a hot war and closer to a stalemate.

COVID-19 isn’t the first disease we’ve adapted to

What is still a pandemic may be shifting, thanks to the highly-infectious Omicron variant, into a more grimly predictable endemic phase.

Some experts have begun arguing for official strategies that account for this. An opinion piece published last week by former members of US President Joe Biden’s transition COVID-19 advisory board contends that leaders need to start clearly spelling out their goals for the “’new normal’ of life with COVID-19.”

“In delineating a national strategy,” the former advisers wrote, “humility is essential.”

Some people have been wondering aloud or in print if they should just give up, allow themselves to get Omicron, and be done with it (answer: no).

It’s unclear whether anyone in the 14th century suggested they might just give up and catch the Black Death. Yet, depleted populations somehow managed to adapt to and move past a disease that also disproportionately killed older people and those with pre-existing conditions.

That early version of the plague, a scourge that persists into the present, spurred initial attempts at international disease control like the first quarantine. It also helped people grasp the importance of basic hygiene and social distancing for containing disease, and spawned early precursors of international health authorities.

Being proactive as the pandemic ‘burns itself out’

“Ultimately, all pandemics burn themselves out,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the US, said in an interview this past November. The choice with COVID-19, he added, is whether we want to let it kill and infect a lot more people in the process – or get more proactive.

A physician wearing a 17th-century plague preventive costume.
A physician wearing a 17th-century plague preventive costume. Image: Wellcome Collection

In order to be proactive in the new normal, the former Biden advisers wrote in their opinion piece, real-time information systems will be necessary to more closely track COVID-19. The US, for example, still relies on imprecise estimates of the disease’s spread, projections, and limited monitoring of the genetic changes causing new variants, they wrote.

Vaccine mandates will also be necessary to cope, former Biden advisers wrote in a separate opinion piece.

That’s because at least 90% of the population will probably need immunity for a genuine “return to normalcy,” they wrote, and few countries have ever managed to hit a vaccination rate like that without requirements.

According to one tally, only a few countries have so far reached 90% in terms of people receiving at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose: the UAE, Cuba, and Chile.

Evidence suggests vaccination may remain a reliable way to limit fatalities as COVID-19 endures. In Canada, for example, the death rate from the disease fell from 2.95 per million in 2020 to 0.42 per million in 2021, as the country recorded one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.

More reading on learning to live with COVID-19

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • It was obvious that without a global strategy it would be impossible to beat a global pandemic, according to this piece, which suggests that more vaccine sharing with less-developed countries could’ve limited the emergence of variants. (Brookings)
  • Just a matter of weeks ago life seemed to be sliding towards something that looked like it might be normal, according to this piece. Now, the task will be figuring out how much disease and death we’ll tolerate. (Wired)
  • Clearly COVID-19 variant Omicron is more infectious, but how can we be sure it causes less-severe disease than other variants? According to this piece, the best evidence is the epidemic’s trajectory in Britain. (The Conversation)
  • Some experts hesitate to declare a new normal, according to this piece, because too little is yet known about protection against the next variant – “because we will undoubtedly get a next variant.” (The New Yorker)
  • The software firm GitLab was ahead of the curve when it appointed a head of remote work in 2019, according to this piece, which notes that now might be a good time for other companies to follow. (Raconteur)
  • Throughout the pandemic governments have enlisted psychologists to “nudge” the public into safe and healthy behavior. Turns out, according to this piece, that maybe wasn’t such a great approach. (The Conversation)
  • One way to help us co-exist with COVID-19, according to this study: get more shots for things like flu and measles into arms, because “even unrelated vaccines could help reduce the burden of the pandemic.” (Science Daily)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to COVID-19, Vaccination and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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