Opinion: When the history of the pandemic is written, what will be the biggest lesson?
Just as we viewed the influenza epidemic of 1918-20 with quaint wonder, our descendants 100 years from now are likely to view this generation as technologically and medically backward. Then they are likely to scream about their own constitutional rights and fight against the very medicine that could cure them
One by one, the political talking points about the pandemic — liberals are prolonging mask mandates to exert control over people, conservatives are acting with willful indifference toward their fellow men, etc. — are melting away like a spring snowstorm.
As the restrictions begin to fade, this might mean that Americans are coming to their senses. However, it probably means that the battlefields of disunity are merely shifting.
Regardless, it’s instructive to begin reviewing the past two years, including what has to be regarded as a genuine miracle.
But first, a clarification. We’re not bold enough to declare the pandemic over.
The New York Times reports that deaths remain at an average of about 2,300 per day nationwide. But the seven-day average of new cases has fallen to about 140,000, down from 164,418 in September, and hospital workers are beginning to turn their attention to more conventional ailments again.
Utah, according to Gov. Spencer Cox, will begin treating COVID-19 like any other seasonal disease on March 31. The state will transition from “an emergency posture and into a manageable risk model,” he said.
Other states, including California, have dropped their mask mandates. Even in liberal San Francisco, masks are no longer required indoors.
The nation may yet see another spike due to some new variant. People will get sick and die, but for years they have gotten sick and died from influenza. With luck, this new endemic stage should feature lower case counts, continued vaccine and booster shots and perhaps the development of more effective treatments.
The worst, we hope, is over.
But if global pandemics happen only once a century, the lessons from COVID-19 may never last. Just as we viewed the influenza epidemic of 1918-20 with quaint wonder, our descendants are likely to view this generation as technologically and medically backward. Then they are likely to scream about their own constitutional rights and fight against the very medicine that could cure them.
It’s human nature, apparently. It happened 100 years ago. There is little reason to believe it won’t happen again.
Unless, that is, the nation becomes more unified. Unless a century from now people trust their public servants and the folks who have dedicated their lives to medicine.
And yet, we suspect people today would be surprised to read what historians write about the last two years. We believe the centerpiece of that story will have to be the lightning speed — in research and production terms — in which effective vaccines were produced and approved for use.
The website statnews.com has labeled it “a freaking miracle.” That is an apt description.
“If Covid vaccines had taken as long as the mumps vaccine to develop, the world would have had to face the Delta and Omicron waves with the vast majority of people on the planet armor-less against the virus that causes Covid,” said writer Helen Branswell. “Instead, it took just 66 days after the SARS-2 sequence was published for scientists at the NIH to begin enrolling people in a Phase 1 clinical trial of Moderna’s Covid vaccine.”
And despite predictable problems distributing the vaccines equitably, at least 55% of the world has now been vaccinated.
Time brings perspective. In the future, the political hyperventilations of the past two years will boil away, and the real lessons will emerge. One is that science does tend to change as new data appears. The Centers for Disease Control initially said not to wear masks, then changed, then suggested heavier masks. This wasn’t sinister. It was an example of being adaptive.
Another is that governments should avoid overreacting, and they should remember to hold the free exercise of religion, a constitutionally protected right, as more important than shopping. Too many jurisdictions tried to restrict church gatherings while allowing stores to remain open.
Some court decisions saved the day in that regard, including some memorable ones from the U.S. Supreme Court.
But the greatest of all lessons concerns those vaccines. It is that human beings have the potential to conquer amazing obstacles, even to fight a virus previously unknown to the world.
Whether everyone received it, and whether some people saw it as a sinister plot, will be unimportant. For many people, it kept them from getting sick and dying, and that is a miracle, indeed.