The movies do a strange thing to the human mind. All our lives, we have been taught that the good guys eventually triumph. The stories we tell, the books we read, the legends we pass down from generation to generation mostly have within them a comforting lie: That the heroes succeed. Movies like “Independence Day” tell us that when people come together, we are an “extraordinary species” that even technologically superior aliens cannot topple. Our history books and classes highlight the greatest feats of mankind: Going to the moon. Beating Polio and Smallpox. Inventing the internal combustion engine. We regale ourselves with tales of how people triumphed against the odds: like Hannibal at Carrhae, or the Irish war of Independence.
And yet, for all of that, we have never managed to eliminate the common cold, or the influenza virus.
Since the beginning of this pandemic, the working assumption of most people – guided by the media and policymakers – is that humanity would triumph, and defeat the coronavirus. We began with lockdowns and masks and social distancing. We isolated the elderly. We suspended the treatment of other ailments in our hospitals to make way for the sick. That was the right thing to do, in all probability. We did not know then what exactly we were dealing with, and taking precautions was entirely the prudent course. For all we knew in January 2020, the fatality rate of covid could have been 5, or 7, or 10 per cent. Denying it the chance to spread was sensible.
Then we spent countless billions developing vaccines. That, too, was the right thing to do. Vaccines, after all, eliminated smallpox and other previously devastating illnesses. Vaccines provide annual protection to millions of vulnerable people against the flu, and against other illnesses. The covid vaccines that we have produced remain, at this stage, experimental. Their administration has been the largest single field trial of any medicine in the history of the world. Billions of us (including me) have had them. And they appear to work – to some extent.
We know now that the vaccines provide good protection against hospitalisation, and deaths – but not full protection. Vaccinated people can still get sick and are still getting sick. There is evidence too, from Israel and the United States, that the immunity they provide may not last forever. Already there is talk of a booster shot.
All the while, Covid endures. And mutates. And circulates.
The most successful viruses in history have always been those which are the least lethal. There is a simple reason for this: A virus which kills too many of its hosts will find fewer hosts, and have fewer chances to circulate. There is reason to believe – or perhaps, more accurately, hope – that as covid mutates, it will become less lethal over time. Indeed, with the Delta variant, we are already seeing just that. Only those who refuse to believe it for ideological reasons can now deny that the hospitalisation and death rates with Delta are significantly below those caused by the mother virus.
The problem today is that too many of us still harbour hope of final victory. Many of us still believe, as a result of decades of conditioning, that the good guys will win, and the virus can be defeated. We believe that when everybody is vaccinated, there will be a day of zero cases. And then a week of zero cases. And that eventually we will reach the point where a stray case of covid is reported in the Aleutian Islands, and it makes global news, because the virus is so rare. We believe that someday, we will be reading a Wikipedia article to our grandchildren about the pandemic, and that that article will say that the last case of covid was recorded in a Siberian woman in the autumn of 2027. That is, to some extent, the fantasy which we have been sold.
Too few of us are willing to admit the truth: That the war on Covid has been comprehensively won – by the virus. We have no mechanism – none whatever – to eliminate it.
The question then is how long we will continue to fight this war which has already been lost. How long will we continue to count daily cases, as if they matter beyond creating a sense of panic? Between the vaccines, and the reduced lethality of Delta, deaths in the UK are at winter flu levels. The only question that remains now is not how will we fight the war, but what kind of peaceful co-existence with the virus can we negotiate?
The long term, for all of us, probably looks like this: Covid will become a new, seasonal, flu like illness, against which (like the flu) we have vaccines that provide some, though imperfect, protection. Most of us will probably catch covid at some stage in our lives. Some of us will probably catch it multiple times. Until that has happened, there is reason to suspect that we face a decade or more of hard winters, with people dying.
The costs of the war on Covid will end up – globally – being in the trillions. The psychological damage done has been severe, and the economic damage worse. This is a global version of America’s Vietnam war. Then, they poured resources and lives into an unwinnable conflict for a decade or more, and scarred themselves psychologically for decades after. We should be learning from that. Not repeating the mistake.