How will the pandemic end?
Will politicians hold a press conference, declaring victory over whatever divided us politically about the virus? Will there be a national day of celebration, to be enshrined as a holiday forever more, with parades and fireworks? Will the president fly onto an aircraft carrier beneath a banner that says “mission accomplished?”
No. It will fizzle like the carbonation in an open pop can. That’s what history suggests. Everything — masks, social distancing, fear and political idiocy will just fade away, gradually.
Well, maybe not the political idiocy.
The latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll finds the largest percentage, 25%, believes the pandemic will end in three to six months. But that also was the largest percentage in the March poll, at 23%. Many people don’t think it’s over, yet.
However, in February the largest percentage — 27% — said they thought the end wouldn’t come for another year. That’s progress, probably the result of observations and the availability of vaccines.
But how will it really end?
Writing for Gavi, the global vaccine alliance, health care researcher and historian Agnes Arnold-Forster described the two components of a pandemic. One is medical and the other is social. The medical side deals with the number of new infections and deaths. The social side is more important. It deals with fear.
Arnold-Forster says you can’t have one without the other in order to end the pandemic.
“The rates of coronavirus might go down, fewer people will be hospitalized and die, people’s anxieties could ease, and life could return to normal — in that order,” she writes. “Or rates could stay the same, but people just get sick and tired of restrictions and launch themselves into the parties they had planned, regardless.
“Or rates could go down, but people remain fearful — anxious about returning to ‘normal life’ and unable to let go of some of the precautions we have become accustomed to.”
Many Utahns seem happily enrolled in the second camp. I lost track of how often I heard state lawmakers talk about being tired of wearing masks last winter as they set the artificial date of April 10 to end the state mask mandate. Many businesses, churches, medical buildings and the Salt Lake City government have held firm, still requiring masks. But it’s becoming more common to see people without them in public.
But a fair portion of people I know are in the third camp, afraid to venture out.
The last major pandemic — the misnamed Spanish influenza — gives us a clue as to how it might end. People thought it was over in 1919, but then came a resurgence in 1920. On Feb. 6 of that year, the city commission and the board of health in Provo decided to shut down schools, “picture shows,” dances, businesses, pool halls and all other public gatherings except at “eating houses,” according to news reports of the day.
Other cities went through similar declarations. This must have been discouraging, coming well after things had opened up again following the main portion of that pandemic. But cities went through influenza scares for several years after that. As Arnold-Forster writes, Chicago experienced one in 1925.
Of course, there are differences between now and a century ago. We have a vaccine, for one thing. The trick is getting enough people to take it.
We also have the mask mandate a bit backward from our ancestors. As Utah media reported in late 1918, government officials were blaming businesses in Salt Lake City for forcing a lifting of the mandate there so people would still travel to the city to do their Christmas shopping. Today, businesses are more likely than not to continue requiring masks.
As foolish as it was for the Legislature to set an arbitrary date for lifting the state mask mandate, it did coincide with a reduction in cases that continues today. The lastest Deseret News/Hinckley poll found 64% of registered voters saying they already had been vaccinated, up sharply from a month earlier.
Gradually, restrictions are lifting. Some schools are planning in-person graduation ceremonies, the Utah Jazz keeps letting more fans into games, and Real Salt Lake plans to let fans in without masks.
But that’s just Utah. Other states aren’t as far along. Some other nations haven’t yet begun vaccinations. History, Arnold-Forster writes, shows how difficult it is to eradicate a disease. The polio vaccine was developed in 1955, but it took until 1984 for the last “naturally acquired infection” to occur in the United States. Today, the disease still exists, although it has been greatly diminished.
“Wherever you look, there is unlikely to be a precise end date for the pandemic,” she writes.
Sorry, no press conference. No national holiday. Just a long, gradual return to whatever normal will be.