Another Year (Or More) Of Covid?
Mutated versions of the coronavirus threaten to prolong the pandemic, perhaps for years — killing more people and deepening the global economic crisis in the process.
The big picture: The U.S. and the world are in a race to control the virus before these variants can gain a bigger foothold. But many experts say they already expect things to get worse before they get better. And that also means an end to the pandemic may be getting further away.
- “It may take four to five years before we finally see the end of the pandemic and the start of a post-COVID normal,” Singapore’s education minister said last week, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Where it stands: “There are essentially two separate COVID-19 epidemics,” Dutch officials said recently, referring to the original strain of COVID-19 and the burgeoning threat from mutated versions of the virus.
- There’s light at the end of the tunnel for the first epidemic. Although the virus is still spreading uncontrolled across the U.S. and much of the world, cases and hospitalizations are down from their peak, and vaccinations are steadily increasing.
- But the next iteration, fueled by variants of the virus, is already taking hold.
What’s next: A British variant of the coronavirus will likely become the dominant strain within the U.S. pretty soon, experts say. It’s significantly more contagious than the virus we’ve been dealing with so far, and some researchers believe it may also be about 30% more deadly.
- “That hurricane’s coming,” Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota and Biden transition adviser, said Sunday on “Meet the Press.”
- A more contagious and more lethal strain of the virus could easily send cases, hospitalizations and deaths soaring right back to record levels, even as vaccinations continue to ramp up.
“We are going to see something like we have not seen yet in this country,” Osterholm said.
- It’s already happening in the U.K., where skyrocketing hospitalizations prompted another round of lockdown measures — and pushback against those restrictions.
Vaccines work against the British variant, and they will help control its spread, just as they’ll help control the pandemic overall.
- But vaccinations can only ramp up so quickly. The Biden administration is trying to push doses out the door as fast as it can, but there’s a very good chance the more contagious virus is moving faster.
- The existing vaccines don’t appear to work as well against some other variants, including a particularly troubling one first identified in South Africa. They do work, and they appear to prevent serious illness and death, which are the most important things — but they may not prevent as many infections overall.
- Vaccine makers can rework their recipes and come up with booster shots to help address more resistant strains, but that will take time.
How it works: All of these problems stem from the same underlying problem — the unchecked spread of the virus.
- More cases mean more hospitalizations and more death. Bigger outbreaks also provide more opportunities for mutations to arise, and to spread.
- A more transmissible virus means that a greater share of the population — maybe as much as 85% — would have to get vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity. That’ll be a stretch, given the widespread vaccine hesitancy across the country.
Because vaccine production is still scaling up, getting things under control well enough to head off a second phase of the pandemic would have to rely heavily on social distancing and mask-wearing.
- That’s not a very promising position to be in, especially for a country like the U.S.
The bottom line: Vaccines work, and they are still the key to ending this pandemic. But leaning on them almost exclusively only makes the job harder and will likely prolong this pandemic for years.
I spoke on the phone earlier today to a friend who just went through it — his whole family had it — and it was gruesome. Still doesn’t have his taste and smell back, and doesn’t know if he ever will. I e-mailed with a friend from Hungary who said he and his wife had it, and it was really bad. They’re young and fit, too.
What if we have another year like 2020? Things will start to come apart. Douthat’s column over the weekend was about how the Covid year fed into radicalism of the Left and the Right. He says that the insane school re-naming project that radical elites in San Francisco have undertaken is something that Covid has allowed to happen:
It is precisely because the city’s public school classrooms are closed, precisely because normal educational tasks and interactions have been suspended, that radical projects find themselves more easily and naturally fast-tracked. If there’s anything we’ve learned about pandemic life, it’s that suspense of ordinary life creates a vacuum that ideology rushes in to fill.
For the last month, we’ve been focused on the particularly poisonous way that’s happened on the American right: how the online drama of QAnon and its stepchild #StoptheSteal became powerful enough and immersive enough to help inspire a riot at the U.S. Capitol. Yes, QAnon predated the pandemic and Trump would have claimed voter fraud no matter what. But the pandemic months still felt like they worked a fundamental change on many conservatives’ relationship to political reality, pushing normal people deeper into certain kinds of very-online fantasy.
What’s happened on the far left is somewhat different. The right’s pandemic-era dreamscape reflects a fear of growing powerlessness, with paranoia about malignant and all-powerful elites coupled with a fantasy of eucatastrophic victory. The left’s pandemic ambitions, though, are all about using newfound power to transform institutions in which their influence has been increasing. That makes them utopian but not fantastical, extreme but not a fever dream.
For instance, the San Francisco school board’s grasp of history may be shaky and its history-erasing ambitions radical, but it really does have the power to carry out a school-renaming project or a dramatic curricular review or any other step deemed necessary to instantiate the new era of awokened liberalism.
That’s a very good insight in that third paragraph, one that explains why I have been far less worried about far-right radicalism than far left radicalism. As I’ve confessed here before, I ought to have been paying more attention to QAnon and MAGA extremism. Had I been, I would likely not have been caught off guard by January 6. But I still maintain that there is no contest between the two extremisms, because the Woke Left holds power in almost all American institutions and elite networks — and that is how you get things done in this country (and in any country).
Put another way, as shocking and as appalling as the attack on the Capitol was, there is no chance at all that the mob could have overturned the US government. None. The far-right mob is largely powerless to do anything other than make mischief. Even though Trump was president for four years, Wokeness hardly broke its stride in marching through the institutions.
Douthat makes the same point in a different way: the Left really does have the power to transform the country and its institutions to fit its vision. If we have another year of Covid, you watch: Biden and the Democratic Congress will attempt to build the rudiments of a social credit system as a way of getting people to behave in ways that will slow the spread of the virus, and to control the outbreak of civil unrest. And a lot of Americans, desperate for life to return to normal, will accept it.
Along those lines, a friend I spoke with today who hasn’t gotten his taste and smell back told me that where he lives, there are still lots of people who are living life as if Covid didn’t exist. They are having slumber parties for kids, and things like that. For whatever reason or reasons, they want to believe that they shouldn’t have to change their lives at all for this disease. This is why we can’t have nice things. And this is part of the reason why we are inviting the surveillance state into existence.