Nations around the planet are making a subtle but consequential pivot in their war against the coronavirus: Crushing the virus is no longer the strategy. Many countries are just hoping for a draw.
It’s a strategic retreat, signaled in overt and subtle ways from Washington to Madrid to Pretoria, South Africa, to Canberra, Australia. Notably, few countries today outside of China – which is still locking down cities – cling to a “zero-covid” strategy.
The phrase often heard now in the United States and many other nations is “live with the virus.” That new stance is applauded by some officials and scientists, and welcomed by people exhausted with the hardships and disruptions of this global health emergency entering its third year.
But there are also disease experts who fear the pendulum will swing too far the other way. They worry that many world leaders are gambling on a relatively benign outcome from this omicron variant surge, and sending messages that will lead people who are normally prudent to abandon the social distancing and mask-wearing known to limit the pathogen’s spread. Epidemiologists say the live-with-it strategy underestimates the dangers posed by omicron.
“This notion of learning to live with it, to me, has always meant a surrendering, a giving up,” World Health Organization epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said.
Virologist Angela Rasmussen of the University of Saskatchewan likewise fears that people are relaxing sensible precautions prematurely: “I understand the temptation to say, ‘I give up, it’s too much.’ Two years is a lot. Everybody’s sick of it. I hate this. But it doesn’t mean actually the game is lost.”
WHO officially declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Jan. 30, 2020, when there were 7,711 confirmed cases of covid-19 and 170 deaths in China, and another 83 cases scattered across 18 other countries – and no deaths.
Two years later, the virus has killed more than 5.5 million people, and the pandemic is ongoing. But the global health emergency has evolved – reshaped by the tools deployed to combat it, including vaccines. The virus itself and the disease it causes are now so familiar, they have lost some of their early spookiness.
No national leader would ever say that it’s time to quit the struggle, but the tone of the contest has changed, with little talk of beating, crushing, defeating the virus. SARS-CoV-2 is part of the world now, a “pantropic” virus that can infect people, deer, minks, rats and all sorts of mammals.
Many nations continue to impose mask requirements, vaccination mandates and travel restrictions. But few leaders in democratic societies have the political capital to take harsh measures to suppress transmission. Even the arrival of the ultra-transmissible omicron variant did not throw the world back into winter 2021, when the paramount goal remained stopping viral spread at all costs – much less back to spring 2020, when people were told to stay home, wipe down their groceries and not touch their face.
Even officials in Australia, long a fortress nation that sought to suppress the virus at all costs, have chosen to ease some mandates in recent weeks.
The country has gained global headlines for its treatment of unvaccinated tennis champion Novak Djokovic, who flew in for the Australian Open and immediately ran afoul of the government’s virus protocols, spending the better part of a week in a detention hotel. On Friday, Australia’s immigration minister canceled the player’s visa a second time.
But the other national story in Australia is a debate over the relaxed restrictions. National and state leaders had an agreement that strict measures would end when vaccination reached 80% of the eligible population. That threshold was reached months ago, and now more than 90% of the eligible population is vaccinated. Masks are still required in some indoor settings, and there are capacity limits, but opposition leaders and some experts have decried what they call the “let it rip” strategy.
“The decision to remove restrictions just as Omicron surged has cost us dearly,” declared a report from an independent group of experts called OzSAGE. “The ‘let it rip’ strategy and defeatist narrative that ‘we are all going to get it’ ignores the stark lived reality of the vulnerable of our society.”
In South Africa, where officials first sounded the alarm about omicron, the government in December eased protocols, betting that previous encounters with the virus have given the population enough immunity to prevent significant levels of severe illness. The omicron wave there subsided quickly with modest hospitalizations, and scientists think one reason is that so many people – close to 80% – had previously been infected by earlier variants.
Omicron also appears to be less virulent – less likely to cause disease. This heavily mutated coronavirus variant stiff-arms the front-line defense of antibodies generated by vaccines and previous infection but does not seem to be adept at invading the lungs or escaping the deeper defenses of the immune system.
In the ideal scenario, omicron’s alarming wave of infections will spike quickly, leaving behind a residue of immunity that will keep a broad swath of the population less vulnerable to future infections. This would be the last major, globally disruptive wave of the pandemic. The virus would still be around but would no longer be in a special category apart from other routinely circulating and typically nonfatal viruses such as influenza.
There are other scenarios less attractive. Scientists are quick to point out that they don’t know how long omicron-induced immunity lasts. The virus keeps mutating. Slippery variants packing a more powerful punch could yet emerge, and virologists say that, contrary to what has sometimes been conjectured, viruses do not inexorably evolve toward milder strains.
But humans change, too. Outside of locked-down China, most people are no longer immunologically naive to the coronavirus. Scientists believe that’s a factor in omicron’s relatively low severity for individual patients. In the long term, humans and viruses tend to reach something like a stalemate. Only one disease-causing virus, smallpox, has ever been eradicated.
In the short term, experts believe omicron is essentially unstoppable but of limited threat to individuals even as it causes societal chaos. Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said he believes that about half of the U.S. population will be infected with omicron during the next three months, with most cases asymptomatic.
“There’s no way to stop its spread – unless we do measures like China is doing, and you and I know very well that’s not possible in the United States,” Mokdad said.
There is no unified global response to the pandemic. Despite calls to “follow the science,” scientific research cannot dictate the best policy for some of the stickiest issues – such as when to open schools to in-person learning, or who should be prioritized for vaccines, or whether people who have no symptoms should be regularly tested.
The national strategies typically reflect elements of a country’s culture, wealth, government structure, demographics and underlying health conditions. Also geography: New Zealand has managed to record only a few dozen deaths from covid-19, one of the lowest per capita death tolls on the planet, by leveraging its isolation in the South Pacific.
Japan, Singapore and South Korea, nations with a long history of mask-wearing and aggressive measures to suppress epidemics, have managed to keep the virus largely in check without draconian lockdowns or major sacrifices to their economies.
Peru, hammered by the variants dubbed lambda and gamma before the delta and omicron waves arrived, has had the deadliest pandemic per capita, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracking site. The nations of Eastern Europe, with older populations and high vaccine skepticism, are not far behind.
Countries have different and sometimes unreliable ways of documenting the pandemic, but some general trends are clear. Among the wealthiest nations, the United States – where the pandemic is thoroughly polarized, misinformation is rampant and a significant fraction of the public has resisted vaccination – has had an unusually deadly pandemic. According to the Hopkins tracker, the United States ranks 21st in reported deaths per capita. Britain is not much better, at 28th, while Canada is 82nd.
A group of doctors who advised President Joe Biden during the presidential transition have urged a reset of the strategy to recognize the “new normal” of the virus, which has little chance of being eradicated and will probably continue to cause typically mild illness and require vaccination boosters at a frequency yet to be determined.
Biden took office nearly a year ago vowing to crush the pandemic, having won the presidency in part by emphasizing a more aggressive posture against the contagion than President Donald Trump. Biden’s administration pushed vaccination hard and saw millions of people a day roll up their sleeves during the spring. On July 4, after caseloads had dropped, he assembled a crowd on the South Lawn for a celebration of independence from the virus.
But the surge of infections and deaths from the delta variant proved that celebration to be premature, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its guidelines, saying even those people fully vaccinated should resume wearing masks indoors. The delta wave began to subside in the fall, but then omicron, crammed with mutations that make it wildly more transmissible and evasive of immunity, erupted in late November.
Biden’s omicron strategy is not significantly different from what he employed against previous variants. On Dec. 2, he detailed his plans by first announcing what he would not do: “lockdowns.” He vowed to distribute 500 million rapid tests and doubled the number in recent days. His covid task force continues to emphasize the importance of vaccines, therapeutics and testing rather than restrictions on mobility and gatherings.
Fatalism and fatigue
The strategic shift toward the live-with-it strategy in many nations, including the United States, has often gone without formal acknowledgment from national leaders. Spain is one of the exceptions: Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has said he wants the European Union to stop tracking covid as a separate disease and recognize that it is becoming an endemic pathogen.
Across the Pyrenees, French nightclubs closed as omicron swept through. Indoor masking is required, regardless of vaccination status. In bars, patrons are not allowed to consume alcohol while standing up. France, like Italy and many other European countries, has leaned heavily on vaccine passports.
French President Emmanuel Macron is blunt about his desire to make life uncomfortable for the unvaccinated by limiting their ability to go into public places. In a newspaper interview, he used graphic language that has been translated into English as “I really want to piss them off.”
Many global leaders, including those in the United States and Europe, have focused on vaccination as the key to mitigating the pandemic. The vaccines do lower the risk of severe illness. What they do not do as well is stop transmission and mild infection. The speed of omicron’s spread is the key factor in the equation that determines how much pressure it will put on hospitals – which are currently seeing record numbers of covid patients in the United States.
“If we just completely let everything go and allow the omicron epidemic to run its natural course, we’ll completely overrun our health system and be left in a situation potentially worse than what we experienced in early 2020,” said James Lawler, co-director of the University of Nebraska’s Global Center for Health Security.
He is not seeing the precautions he saw early in the pandemic, when he was among the first disease experts to sound an alarm about the extreme transmissibility of the coronavirus. Earlier this week, he went to a grocery store and was virtually alone in wearing a mask. That’s the norm, he said, in Omaha.
“There’s not a mandate,” he said. “Across the entire experience of humanity, we should have learned by now the only way to get high levels of compliance like this is to make it mandatory. That’s what happened with seat belts.”
There is fatalism mixing with pandemic fatigue and, in some countries, science denial or ideological rejection of the restrictions and mandates that many public health experts consider to be common sense measures in a pandemic. And anecdotally, people may rationally feel the battle is lost, the virus has won.
Public health officials warn that this is a dangerous attitude. It’s true that for an individual, risk might be low. But when a virus spreads as quickly as omicron does, the equation suddenly spits out alarming results – millions of people sick at once, many of them with underlying conditions that have already put them on the edge of a cliff and vulnerable to a shove.
Rasmussen, the University of Saskatchewan virologist, is among the experts who think people have misunderstood the concept of endemicity – which is the point at which a virus continues to circulate at low levels but is not generating epidemic-level outbreaks. She fears some people hear the “endemic virus” talk as a sign that resistance is futile.
“People think that means we just give up,” she said. “They think ‘endemic’ means that we’re all going to get covid eventually. I’m hearing people say, ‘Why not just get it over with now, and I’ll be bulletproof?’ None of this is what endemicity means.”
The Washington Post’s William Booth in London, Chico Harlan in Rome, Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem, Terrence McCoy in Rio de Janeiro, Michael E. Miller in Sydney, Perry Stein in Brussels and Lesley Wroughton in Cape Town, South Africa, contributed to this report.