But the pandemic is far from over.
In many countries, cases are surging — again. By some measures it’s as bad as ever. Globally, numbers of new cases are approaching peaks reached in January. In Europe, the United States and Latin America, there is talks of yet another wave, perhaps a misnomer — for how can a new wave begin if the previous one never fully crashed?
In the United States, despite one of the most successful vaccine rollouts of any nation, cases are again going up. During a virtual White House health briefing on Monday, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, admitted she was “scared” of where things were heading. Walensky said she had to speak of the “recurring feeling I have of impending doom.”
A large number of European nations are struggling with their own surges, in part because of slow vaccine rollouts and spreading variants. “We will lose control if we do not move now,” French President Emmanuel Macron said as he announced nationwide restrictions Wednesday.
In India, where cases had been sharply falling for months, a new surge is pitting the virus against the vaccine. “You can see that the tidal wave is coming,” Bhramar Mukherjee, a biostatistician at the University of Michigan who models India’s outbreak, told The Washington Post last week.
And then there is Latin America, where many nations are lagging behind in vaccinations. In Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has been dismissive of the virus since the very early days of the pandemic, an out-of-control wave has coincided with a political crisis, and top cabinet officials and military leaders made a chaotic exit from the government this week.
“Right now, Brazil is at the hour when darkness reigns,” Ricardo Ricupero, a veteran Brazilian diplomat, told the Guardian.
The virus has a habit of sneaking up on us. There was plenty of good news to keep us distracted. Almost all the information about the efficiency of vaccines has been positive. In Britain, once one of the countries worst hit by the virus, the jabs seem to be doing the job: On Sunday, there were no recorded covid-19 deaths in London for the first time in six months.
But in some ways, that good news is part of the problem. After a year of restrictions, frustration and misery, the light at the end of the tunnel can be overwhelming and the temptation to return to normal irresistible. In countries where vaccinations are going well, doses alone have not ended the disease.
In Chile, a rare Latin American vaccine superstar, more than 6 million out of the country’s 18 million people have been vaccinated. But at the same time, there has been a surge in infections that threatens to overwhelm the health-care system, with a record 7,626 new coronavirus cases in a single day last week. The more-infectious variants first found in Britain and Brazil have been found in the country.
Health-care experts say that government moves to ease restrictions, including creating a permit system for summer vacation in January and opening gyms, churches and schools weeks after that, contributed to the surge. The nation announced new lockdown measures this weekend.
“No one questions that the vaccination campaign is a success story,” Francisca Crispi, a regional president of Chile’s medical association, told the New York Times. “But it conveyed a false sense of security to people, who felt that since we’re all being vaccinated the pandemic is over.”
The pandemic is not over, but if we are lucky we may be seeing the beginning of the end. Gone is the overwhelming unknown of March 2020, but the spread of variants means a race against time with the rollout of vaccines in most nations — and it’s a race many nations run the risk of losing.
“We now have an unparalleled supply of astonishingly efficacious vaccines being administered at an incredible clip,” Zeynep Tufekci wrote for the Atlantic this week. “If we act quickly, this surge could be merely a blip for the United States. But if we move too slowly, more people will become infected by this terrible new variant, which is acutely dangerous to those who are not yet vaccinated.”
Historically, pandemics have not often ended neatly. Even now, medical historians dispute exactly how, and when, the great 1918 flu pandemic actually ended.
“Some argue that it infected enough of the population to generate a barrier of natural immunity,” Anna Gross wrote in an essay for the Financial Times earlier this month. “Others say it mutated to become less deadly over time. Either way, intense outbursts persisted around the world until 1922.”
Generally, diseases tend to fade rather than burn out. Smallpox, one of the only pandemics to have been defeated through human effort, was eradicated after a grueling 13-year-long global vaccination drive that sometimes involved coercive and violent efforts, Gross notes.
A more likely scenario will be that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is over, but that the virus lingers in our lives. As James Hamblin, a physician and writer for the Atlantic, has put it, covid-19 may already be over, but it is now replaced by a successor that we may describe as covid-21. “It’s the disease as it will be experienced in the months and years to come,” Hamblin wrote last week.
Even as we struggle to see how the pandemic will end, debate about how it started is unresolved. The inconclusive findings this week of a World Health Organization-backed investigation into the virus’s origins in China have sparked new recriminations about Beijing’s handling of the early days of the virus and defensive assertions from Chinese officials.
Much of the debate has focused on the controversial theories about a laboratory leak. But in some ways, that may be the most reassuring scenario. If the virus did spread from animals to humans in nature, possibly due to the rapid urbanization in China, then the big concern is that a similar, related coronavirus could spread to humans in the same way in the coming years.
As WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus indicated this week, more work is needed. “This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end.”