Words by Corina Tan
It’s been two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began and many have started to sense a possible return to normalcy. When the world started to ease restrictions and resume some activities that were previously impermissible, it signaled a possibility and feeling of hope. Malaysia’s transition into an endemic phase has been slow and steady with the decision to do so made in reference to the decline in related hospitalizations and death. Throughout the world, although some countries still battle this debilitating virus, many are experiencing mandates and SOPs being uplifted, giving the world a glimmer of hope that the COVID-19 crisis is ending.
According to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, it would be risky to declare the pandemic over when there is always a risk of another wave. The Omicron BA.2 variant, sometimes called the “stealth omicron’ is difficult to detect because of its genetic mutations and is now spreading rapidly in China, Europe and parts of the United States. White House chief medical advisor Dr Antoni Fauci, MD, said that this new variant appears to be 50 – 60 per cent more transmissible, although not more severe. Other experts are still uncertain whether this variant will lead to new spikes, and if existing immunity from vaccinations and infections are sufficiently protective.
What is known so far is that the pandemic will not be officially over until the World Health Organisation says so. As the WHO declared the global pandemic in March 2020, the international group now meets every three months to assess the situation. Eventually, they will make an official determination as to when the emergency will finally be over, but experts believe it is unlikely to result in such a declaration any time soon. The virus still poses a huge threat and substantial risk in areas of the world that have not been widely vaccinated, such as sub-Saharan Africa. New Omicron variants like BA.4 and BA.5 are also driving the upsurge there.
Whether the worse of the pandemic is behind us much depends on who we are, where we live and the immunity that we have been able to establish. There is reason to believe that over time, people’s bodies are going to learn how to deal with this virus as it has with viruses before. Even though we may not be able to prevent transmission, we may be able to prevent it from killing us. For people all over the world who are immune compromised or more vulnerable due to age and other underlying illnesses, the consequence of infection persists. Long COVID continues to be a debilitating outcome for many communities affecting the young and old. Vaccination updates, booster shots, and masks are still our best bet to limit transmission and the risk of spreading infection. It is possible we may always need masks for public transit, crowded areas, mass gatherings, and indoor events which is a small price to pay to keep everyone safe.
Dr David Dowdy, MD, faculty expert and epidemiologist of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says that, “If we’re able to make it through a year with no waves, other than during the wintertime, with other respiratory viral infections, and we’re able to see that the number of deaths from COVID-19 is similar to other well-known respiratory infections, like the flu, it would be reasonable at that time to say we can move on from the pandemic.”