There are days when you can almost forget about the virus. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are still being infected with Covid-19 every day — an average of about 361 Americans have died from it each day for the past week — but after more than two years and millions of lives lost, the pandemic has given way to headlines and breaking news to older ones and more well-known atrocities.
In much of the United States, the pace of life has returned to something of its pre-pandemic pace. Bars and restaurants are busy, there’s a wedding boom and Memorial Day weekend is likely to usher in a busy summer travel season.
But remember how giddy we all were for a virus-free summer last year? In May 2021, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that vaccinated Americans could remove their masks and forget about social distancing in most situations. Then, during a successful campaign to vaccinate millions of Americans, the White House began preparing a July Fourth party to declare a “summer of freedom” from the virus.
You know how that turned out. America’s vaccination rate was too low, and just when we thought we’d nailed it, Covid squirmed free. First the Delta variant spread, then Omicron and its many sub-variants. Masks were put back on. Booster shots were soon recommended for people over the age of 12. And in the year since what was once billed as a “hot Vax summer,” about 400,000 more Americans have died from Covid-19.
This is not a column about the dangers of prematurely declaring victory over the pandemic. Few American health officials are now urging anything but caution and vigilance.
But Covid’s rapid turnaround last summer illustrates a dynamic I think we have yet to internalize: any peace we’ve achieved with the virus may only be a temporary, uneasy one. It seems likely that, at least for the foreseeable future, our lives will continue to be turned upside down by the whims of this wily, unpredictable virus until we can address it.
And it’s not just our health that’s at stake. I worry that the unpredictability of Covid could bring volatility to global affairs. It has been remarkable to watch how the ebb and flow of the pandemic era has confused not only public health officials and the Biden administration, but also the Federal Reserve, the Chinese government, hedge funds and some of the world’s largest corporations.
How can humanity effectively plan for the future when the virus keeps pulling the rug out from under us? We’ve heard about adjusting to a ‘new normal’ since the start of the pandemic, but the malleability of Covid suggests it may not just be a new normal to get used to. And as long as the virus continues to drift in unpredictable directions, it can continue to rock our politics, rock our economies, and impair our ability to work collectively on all of humanity’s other major problems, especially global threats like climate change.
The basic problem is that, particularly since the advent of the Omicron variant, it has become painfully clear that while vaccines prevent serious illness and death, research shows that vaccinated people can still contract Covid-19. Elderly, unvaccinated, immunocompromised, and other high-risk individuals may still be at greater risk.
Even though far fewer people are becoming seriously ill from the virus than it was in its heyday, consider the extent of the disruption to daily life we may continue to face – labor shortages caused by illness, burnout and overwork, stress and psychological strain Stresses fatigue in a population that has had little respite from the ever-present threat of disease.
And since the effects of the virus will play out in different ways in different parts of the world, the disruptions could spread erratically around the world. China’s troubled zero-tolerance approach to combating Covid has angered ports in Europe and the United States, forcing some automakers to halt production.
Of course, it’s not just the virus that has undermined global stability. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and extreme weather events, exacerbated by climate change, are also shaking the global economy.
But look at almost any economic history these days and you’ll see that the pandemic is wreaking havoc. Robert Califf, the commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration, told a House panel this week that a Covid-19 outbreak has caused a delay in the agency’s inspection of Abbott Nutrition’s facility, which is dealing with the nationwide shortage of baby formula been linked. Another error was “probably due to staffing issues with Covid-19” in the FDA mailroom, Califf wrote.
Eventually the world will adapt to Covid’s tricks. Nasal vaccines currently in clinical trials may have the potential to curb transmission of the virus. which could deal a blow to Covid’s many variants. Wider access to therapeutic drugs could make contracting Covid less risky and disruptive. And after a few years, waves of the virus might settle into a seasonal pattern that we could adapt to.
However, we may be in for a bumpy Covid ride for the next few years. New variants have proven to be more contagious. People are burned out because they have to do a lot to avoid it. And we have no idea what the next variant might unleash on a world already thoroughly ravaged by the disease.
Office Hours with Farhad Manjoo
Farhad wants chat with readers on the phone. If you’re interested in speaking to a New York Times columnist about anything that’s on your mind, please fill out this form. Farhad will select a few readers to call.