This pandemic will eventually be over, and the Delta surge—in which most of those not yet vaccinated against the coronavirus could become infected—may well be America’s last destructive wave. But just because we’re eager to move past the virus doesn’t mean it’s finished with us.
In our large, open, and globally connected society, getting to zero COVID, the goal that Australia and New Zealand have pursued, is as politically unrealistic as it is biologically implausible. Americans are mostly done with the onerous shutdowns that such a goal would require. The virus has now spread so widely in the world that even tight, long-lasting limits on Americans’ movement—restrictions far beyond what we would tolerate—could not stamp it out entirely. Instead, SARS-CoV-2 will become an endemic virus, settling alongside the other four strains of coronaviruses that circulate widely among us.
But while the other four coronaviruses typically cause little more than the common cold, SARS-CoV-2 is likely to remain a more serious threat even after this pandemic wanes, even after the virus becomes primarily a seasonal pathogen, even after drugs and vaccination limit the damage it does. The virus will become a persistent menace at least on par with the yearly flu—a threat that, though seemingly routine, strains health-care systems, businesses, and schools every winter. With SARS-CoV-2 mingling alongside influenza—and causing a comparable level of death and disease—the harm to public health and economic productivity will be too great for society to simply shrug off. The dual viral threat will compel better defenses. We won’t have a choice.
The biggest challenge in confronting the coronavirus’s continual threat will be adapting our work and leisure activities to turn an omnipresent virus into a manageable risk—and seeing whether enough Americans can reach a political consensus on the practical and cultural changes that this will require. [Continue reading…]