How do pandemics end?

History, I think, begs us to second guess our assumptions about conquering COVID-19 and invites us to reimagine our lives and priorities in an evolving, adaptive world.

How do pandemics end? Exploring the question, a recent analysis by the BBC concludes “most of the infections faced by our ancestors are still with us” and that “the pathogens that rampaged through societies in pandemics in the past are still around.”[1] Raj Bhopal puts it this way: “In due course, we will have to come with terms with the fact that this disease will become endemic.”[2]

I am not a virologist or epidemiologist. Before SARS-CoV-2, I unwittingly assumed that human wars against pathogens have discreet “endings” — celebratory moments when the conquering sapiens waltz around, declaring mission accomplished. However, considering the bubonic plague, cholera, H1N1, HIV, SARS-CoV and MERS, such battles don’t conclude as much as they sputter out to a kind of equilibrium. Mostly, humans don’t really conquer pathogens — we reach unofficial truces with them and eventually adapt to their company.[3]

This historical observation is a valuable antidote to the widely held assumption (and techno-doctrine) that a new vaccine is destined to eventually wipe out the SARS-CoV-2 virus altogether.

Predicting the future is nonsense. And history does not repeat itself, as if it is prescriptive. But all this said, based on historical data, betting on how the era of COVID-19 will end is an odd wager. A more interesting gamble might be: will SARS-CoV-2 actually ever go away? This would appear to be a more historically and biologically relevant contemplation. The outright elimination of COVID-19 would be a remarkable historical anomaly. In other words, as far as history goes, the belief that we are destined to eradicate any of the coronaviruses amounts to magical thinking.

A quick glance at history ought to prompt us to question our specialness. Since March, our use of the word “unprecedented” is, well, unprecedented. There are two observations to consider regarding this new pop slogan:

First, for a great majority of our ancestors, pandemics and epidemics were anything but unprecedented — they were part of the human condition and calculus of life. Our mass confusion about the “unprecedented” nature of our time announces our historical naivety. We seem to be deeply alienated from our ancestral pasts. (But what is unprecedented right now is the scale and fervour of our anticipation that we will technologize ourselves out of our current situation.)

Second, as long as we entertain the notion we are living in exceptional times, we risk perpetually punting our lives to some imaginary “unexceptional time” ahead. But do we have certainty that such a time will ever arrive? No. So, we risk pausing our lives indefinitely. Our preoccupation with “unprecedented” isn’t helpful for anyone’s psychological wellbeing: if you are waiting for the pandemic to “end” to get on with your life, you may spend your whole life in the lobby, waiting out the self-imposed intermission forever.

However, there is a crucial historical footnote relevant for today: there is ample precedence for pandemics and humans adapting to them.

Raising a young child in 2020 has provided a constant reminder to me that the concept of “normal” is nothing more than a convenient fiction. “Normal,” as a static, predictable human environment is a delusion. What might seem unprecedented to adults is not outside of the ordinary to toddlers. This is because little children explore and encounter the world on its own terms, without a construct for judging and measuring the ordinariness of things.

When adults talk about “normal” they seem to refer to a time or situation when the possibility for change is minimal, controlled or nonexistent. But for toddlers everything is new and therefore everything presents as change. Tiny humans do not yet possess a model of normal to impose on an indifferent (and often uncooperative) universe. The world is what it is, waiting to be picked apart, pushed and tasted. On this point, toddlers have an important lesson for us impatient adults: there is no such thing as a “new normal” on the horizon, there is only now. Stop waiting for the myth of the normal to come to the rescue, as if Ordinaire is a returning saviour, floating down from the clouds.

It is time to take that “list of things I’m waiting to do after COVID-19” and ceremoniously chuck it in the dumpster. Light it on fire. The odds are good that the old world is never coming back in any recognizable form soon. Time to rewrite and recalibrate expectations. Devise new approaches. Protracted mourning for the past comes at the expense of (re)discovering the new world and foraging a way forward in the present — the only life we’ll ever have. These are not the days for bemoaning a lack of precedence, but for creativity. Invest energy in making this work — this moment we have inherited for living on this remarkable planet.

[1] These quotes come from How do pandemics end?, produced by BBC’s Visual Journalism Team, published on October 7, 2020. The animated article titled synthesizes the history of previous epidemics and pandemics by tracking an imaginary family’s timeline back for 60 generations. Also see: Niall Ferguson, On What History Can Teach Us About Covid-19, Intelligence Squared, August 4, 2020, Also see: Vaccines and viruses: a history of pandemics, Big Ideas with Paul Barclay, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio National, October 14, 2020 Also see: What Historic Pandemics Could Teach Us About Coronavirus, with Ada Palmer (Ep. 48), Big Brains Podcast, UChicago Podcast Network, Also see: How do pandemics end? On Health Report with Dr Norman Swan, Australia Broadcast Corporation

[2] Should we learn to live with Covid? The Inquiry, British Broadcasting Corporation, October 15, 2020.

[3] Smallpox is the outlier, eventually eliminated by a vaccine that was created in 1796. We like the story of our triumph over smallpox, but so far this is a one-off victory. The eradication of smallpox is an exception, not the ruling precedent. The fact that smallpox is the only story that has this ending is an important point for reflection.