How Will the Pandemic End?

Photo by Andrzej Pobiedziński from FreeImages

According to this article from the LA Times, coronaviruses aspire to be like the common cold. In other words, more infectious than Covid-19, but less deadly. The article says that at least four coronaviruses have mutated to follow this pattern.

According to Daniel Defoe, in “The History of the Plague in London” the early form of that disease was both infectious and lethal. Later it made people ill, but it didn’t kill quite so readily. (I’m interpreting what Defoe said, and interpolated his conclusions). It may be that this is the way that the Covid-19 epidemic ends. In the case of the plague, this happened within a year (if I’m correct), and it is likely that Covid-19 may mutate and produce a much less lethal strain on a timescale of months.

Coronaviruses are noted for their ability to mutate. Mutating fast means that any immunity that someone gets from being infected quickly erodes. So, if the flu is a good guide, the flu’s rapid mutation means that we have to get vaccinated every year to protect ourselves. Sometimes the flu virus is a more serious disease than at other times, but it doesn’t seem to become a lot more lethal over time.

There is a possibility that that is mostly due to better medical treatments and facilities for sufferers. But there is always a chance that the flu could become more lethal in spite of this. If Covid-19 doesn’t mutate to become less lethal or harmful, then life as we knew it is over. Border controls, social distancing, and so on are here to stay. Outbreaks are here to stay. Fast cheap air travel is at an end. Global tourism is at an end.

The Covid-19 pandemic may not actually end, but governments may have to act as if it has. They will be forced to open the borders some time, and this will, inevitably, let the virus in again. More people will die. It seems that vaccines will at the most be only partially effective. People still get the flu even if they have been vaccinated, because the virus continually mutates and the same may prove true of Covid-19.

In Defoe’s time people eventually suffered from “plague fatigue”. They took the attitude that if the plague was going to get them, it didn’t matter what they did, and they stopped avoiding plague victims, and just carried on with business as usual. (They wrapped it up in religious language, but that is the essence).

This, interestingly, appears to be happening in NZ and in the rest of the world. In Defoe’s time, in London, this happened at the peak of the epidemic, and things, coincidentally I believe, got better from then on. In Trump’s America, (and some other countries) we can see the consequences of giving up too soon.

Consequently, I believe we in NZ should continue the fight against the virus, for so long as it remains so lethal. We should hope that, within a year, the virus mutates to become less lethal. We should hope that a vaccine becomes available, but we shouldn’t pin all our hopes on that. Viruses have ways of getting around vaccines.

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