When Covid-19 emerged in January 2020, governments around the world had limited strategies to deal with it. Without a vaccine or proven treatments for the disease, or even access to massive testing, the only option facing political leaders was to choose the least bad option available.
There were four approaches that different governments took during the onset of the pandemic. China, New Zealand, Vietnam and Thailand chose to eliminate the virus at the cost of stopping international travel. Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea suppressed the virus through rigorous testing, tracking and isolation, avoiding severe lockdowns. Sweden allowed the virus to spread through the population before realizing that health systems could not cope with the influx of Covid-19 patients. Meanwhile, European countries, including England and France controlled the virus through a cycle of lockdown measures while keeping borders largely open. This resembled a waiting pattern for a plane running out of fuel: People got tired of the continued restrictions, the economy suffered, and Covid-19 was never completely suppressed.
Before the arrival of vaccines, the more effective One of these strategies was the elimination approach, or “Covid zero”, adopted by countries such as New Zealand, Taiwan and China. But the tools at our disposal have changed radically in the last 15 months. We now have safe and effective vaccines, treatments and mass testing, allowing governments to rethink their initial strategies and form a more sustainable plan for the future.
Covid-19 forced governments around the world to plummet due to the substantial number of deaths it caused, the burden it placed on health services, and the risks of long-term symptoms in younger people. Without the lockdown measures in place, the virus could grow exponentially, finding endless hosts to jump between, while fear of the virus caused people to change their behavior, leading to financial damage. Vaccines are now addressing all three of these problems. If governments can vaccinate 80-90% of their population, Covid-19 will increasingly become a manageable health problem, as will other vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles or whooping cough (whooping cough).
We know that vaccines clearly help reduce hospitalizations and deaths. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that older people vaccinated with mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) were 94% less likely to be hospitalized than people of the same age who were not vaccinated. A study in Scotland found that after the fourth week of an initial dose, the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines reduced the risk of hospitalization by up to 85% and 94% respectively. Initial investigations of Yale university It also indicates that vaccines appear to help people with long-term Covid. Up to 30-40% of people who receive the vaccines report an improvement in their symptoms.
If vaccines really prevent people from dying or getting seriously ill, then the end of the pandemic is in sight for countries that have high vaccine coverage, testing and treatment. One recent study of healthcare workers in Scotland that has not yet been peer reviewed suggests that vaccines can also prevent transmission. Israel has been ahead of its vaccination program, and the United States and the United Kingdom are not far behind. The European Union is moving forward and the next group to join them will likely be in East Asia and the Pacific. Once these populations are protected with vaccine-induced immunity, they can begin to open up again to the world and lift their border restrictions in a careful and controlled manner.
In these countries, the case numbers will be less relevant, as the link between cases, hospitalizations and deaths will be largely broken. This was always the goal of scientists working on treatments and vaccines, and science has been successful. The link between the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths will be broken. But there are still two areas of considerable uncertainty. We can still see the emergence of a variant that reduces the effectiveness of vaccines against death and serious illness. And how we handle the virus in children and adolescents, who will largely be unvaccinated and still susceptible, will be an ongoing challenge. It seems inevitable that children under the age of 16 will also be vaccinated (the US has already approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine in children 12-15 years of age).
So when will the pandemic end? Covid-19 will not end with a bang or a parade. Throughout history, pandemics have ended when disease ceases to dominate daily life and takes a back seat like other health problems. Barring a ghastly new variant, rich countries like Britain and the United States may be within months, if not weeks, of what their citizens will see as the end of the pandemic.
This is not the case in the poorest countries in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. For countries that cannot afford vaccines, technology or treatments for Covid-19, populations will remain trapped by outbreaks that wreak havoc in hospitals and kill healthcare workers and the vulnerable and elderly. It is now up to the richest countries emerging from the pandemic to turn their attention to the poorest nations and ensure that they have the resources they urgently need. Only when Covid-19 stops disrupting lives and livelihoods in all regions can we truly say that the pandemic is over.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism