“The pandemic is over.”
With those words last weekend, President Biden declared an end to the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 6.5 million people, and more than 1 million in the United States.
Of course, the pandemic won’t truly be over until the World Health Organization says so. But even if public health officials do determine that we’re out of this crisis, the virus that causes Covid-19 is still out there. It’s still infecting people. It’s still killing people. It’s still creating long-term health effects for many who contract it.
Still, to feel like life may finally return to normal is a relief. It’s been more than 900 days since New York first shut down as Covid cases exploded. Schools and businesses shuttered. Streets emptied. Many people found themselves isolated from the rest of the world, connecting only through Zoom and depending on television specials like “Haircut Night in America” to help with basic tasks for which we once depended on others.
Now that we can sit in restaurants again, attend classes, and pay for someone else to cut our hair, it’s hard not to be grateful that the worst is behind us. But society has a long road to recovery — both economically and socially. Supply chains remain disrupted, fueling inflation. Many people are still out of work, even as unemployment returns to pre-pandemic levels.
Polarization — especially the political variety — remains sharper than ever. And it’s only been in the past couple of weeks that we could officially stop wearing masks on public transportation, although many stopped doing it months ago.
As the pandemic winds down, it’s never too soon to start planning for the next one. Sure, this has felt like a once-in-a-lifetime event, but it really isn’t. When we first learned of Covid, the world was already in the grip of another pandemic: HIV/AIDS, which has killed more than 40 million people.
Before that, we had two other smaller flu pandemics, in the late 1950s and late 1960s, each of which killed up to 4 million people. And then there was the 1918 flu, which is believed to have claimed the lives of as many as 100 million people around the globe.
If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that Mother Nature has no shortage of infectious diseases. Even in the wake of Covid, we’ve been reminded about the dangers we face by the recent monkeypox epidemic, and the fear that there may be a resurgence of polio.
One thing that should be crystal clear by now, however, is that pandemics and epidemics do not need to be a way of life. Many of them are preventable, or at worst, manageable. But that means better monitoring of hot spots where deadly viruses can jump from animals to humans. Identifying new public health concerns quickly. And then taking them seriously.
With false alarms in the past like Ebola and SARS, it’s no wonder so many of us had become complacent by the time the coronavirus rolled around. We can’t let that happen again. What we have built as a society is too important. We are too important.
There are some scholars who are convinced that nothing has had a greater impact on our history than pandemics and epidemics. The bubonic plague, for example, cut down half of the global population, by some accounts.
But what you might not know is that that plague didn’t ravage the planet just once — it turned living into a literal coin flip twice. We’re most familiar with the Black Death of the 14th century, which killed as many as 200 million people. But there was also the Plague of Justinian in the sixth century, which was proportionately just as deadly.
We can wear masks when needed. We can avoid contact when asked. And we can get vaccines when they’re available. But our true first line of defense is our leaders. And it’s hoped that no men or women who succeed Biden will ever again find themselves needing to declare a devastating pandemic finally over.