Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway, between one world and the next.Arundhati Roy, The Pandemic Is a Portal
With the one-two punch of the Delta and Omicron variants over the last several months, in many places occurring simultaneously or nearly so, scientists are suggesting that we are beginning to approach herd immunity in many countries. Now, many nations are moving toward a “return to normal”—ending lockdowns, returning to full employment, and opening borders to trade and tourism. Will the world be left in a perpetual pandemic by these actions? And will countries continue to act unilaterally, often at odds with their neighbors and the global community? Or can the lessons of the past two years help to forge a new global recognition of our interconnectedness and our need to work together on everything from health to economics?
An early East-West split
In the early days of the pandemic, an East-West split occurred. Asian countries primarily worked hard to limit border traffic and to isolate any COVID-19 cases quickly—seen most dramatically in China’s closure of the entire city of Wuhan from 23 January–8 April in 2020 and later Xi’an from 23 December 2021 to 24 January 2022. Despite proximity to the early cases, other places that enacted strict travel measures, including Hong Kong, Thailand, and Vietnam, all saw very few COVID-19 cases in the early months of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, outbreaks took hold in Iran and Italy, and it soon became clear that it was everywhere. In many European countries and the United States, strong lockdowns did “flatten the curve” of the pandemic significantly. But even as this happened, many were suggesting that herd immunity could be a plausible endgame.* The government of Sweden took the most visible route of trying to protect the vulnerable while allowing the disease to spread freely in the general population.
Sweden’s experiment in early herd immunity backfired. Attempts to protect the vulnerable were poorly implemented and many died. In a May 2020 interview with the comedian Trevor Noah, Sweden’s state epidemiologist Dr. Anders Tegnell said: “The death toll really came as a surprise to us. We really thought that the elderly homes would be much better at keeping the disease out of them.” (The Daily Show with Trevor Noah)
At the time of the interview, Sweden’s death rate was much higher than neighboring countries, which had taken stricter measures to ensure social distancing. To date, Sweden, with a population of around 10 million people, has had more than 16,000 COVID-19-related deaths. Its neighbor, Norway, with 5.5 million people, has had only around 1,500 related deaths, a death rate of less than one-fifth that of Sweden. In a report published in October 2021, an independent commission described Sweden’s measures to save lives in the pandemic as “insufficient and late,” and suggested that lasting damage to the country’s health had occurred due to them. (The Local)
Meanwhile, outbreaks did eventually occur in most Asian countries, with several currently seeing their highest case levels to date. While Europe and parts of the United States begin to move toward a “live with COVID” phase, what happens next in Asia is less certain. Countries such as Vietnam, which is seeing its greatest surge in cases, are reopening fully to the world. The difference now is vaccines.
An endemic future
As the pharmaceutical companies continue to roll out vaccines and new ones are developed, there is hope. And yet we know the virus can mutate in surprising ways, meaning that we might always find ourselves a step behind. For the healthy with access to vaccines, the coronavirus might become a nuisance similar to the common cold or seasonal flu. However, for many others, concern remains high. As a novel disease, the long-term effects are still unknown. Headlines warn of increased mental health problems,** heightened occurrences of sleep disorders,*** and heightened heart-disease risks for those recovering from COVID-19—even mild cases.****
Nations and citizens have tough decisions to make in the months ahead. Clearly, most countries have sided with the need to open up their economies, to return to a pre-COVID normal as much as possible. Only small minorities of people are still living in voluntary lockdowns, those with compromised immune systems, some elderly, some with small children who have yet to be vaccinated.
Dr. Elisabetta Groppelli, a virologist at St. George’s, University of London, warns that whatever hope some of us in fortunate situations might have, “for the world it is still a pandemic and an acute emergency.” (BBC) The World Health Organization says the same: that we are still a long way from being able to call COVID-19 endemic.
When we get there, and even before, we as a human race must work to overcome limiting conceptions of ourselves and even our communities. These can manifest as group or political party loyalty or nationalism or any number of other “isms.” In order to ensure a healthy transition to and beyond endemic COVID-19, we must address a number of factors.
Where public trust in the public health authorities has been lost, it must be restored. The public health authorities can do their part by ensuring that their work and message is never mixed with political expediency or economic necessities. Governments and international institutions must break down barriers to vaccines wherever they arise. And a global shift must occur in which those who chose to remain unvaccinated should face meaningful consequences similar to smokers or intoxicated drivers.
Daniel Susskind, a fellow in economics at Balliol College, Oxford University, recognized a need for such changes early in the pandemic. In June 2020, he wrote:
. . . it has also become clear that much of what is most distressing about this crisis is not new at all. Striking variations in COVID-19 infections and outcomes appear to reflect existing economic inequalities. Remarkable mismatches between the social value of what “key workers” do and the low wages they receive follow from the familiar failure of the market to value adequately what really matters.
The happy embrace of disinformation and misinformation about the virus was to be expected, given a decade of rising populism and declining faith in experts. And the absence of a properly coordinated international response ought to have come as no surprise, given the celebration of “my country first” global politics in recent years.
The crisis then is a revelation in a far more literal sense—it is focusing our collective attention on the many injustices and weaknesses that already exist in how we live together. If people were blind to these faults before, it is hard not to see them now.(International Monetary Fund)
Just as the Buddha awakened to the truth of suffering, we, in seeing these faults and the complexities of our global interconnectedness, will face a choice. Do we think that others have too much dust in their eyes to ever see? Or do we begin conversations with those around us, and those around them, and onward throughout the world? Do we build relationships that unite us, so that future outbreaks of COVID-19 and other diseases are tackled in coordinated and compassionate ways?
Many changes are already taking place. Some of them involve greater localization—in which individuals and communities realize that we cannot always rely on supplies of goods from around the world. We can and should be more sustaining in local circles. But we can also be more global in recognizing that problems in any part of the world are a problem for the entire world. This rich interplay of local and global, sometimes known as “glocalization,” fits well within the Buddhist ethos of recognizing one’s individual ownership of karma as well as the further realization that we are all bound to one another through rich changes of cause and effect.***** Let no opportunity for greater compassion, near or far, be missed. This awakening is here before us, if only we wish to take part in it.
* How much immunity is required for herd immunity has been debated since the early months of the pandemic. The more contagious the disease, the more people need to be immune before a population reaches herd immunity. For example, according to the Mayo Clinic, for a population to have herd immunity to measles, which is a highly contagious disease, approximately 94 per cent of the population must be immune. For COVID-19, early estimates were closer to 70–75 per cent.
** Covid Patients May Have Increased Risk of Developing Mental Health Problems (The New York Times)
*** People 41% more likely to have sleep disorder after COVID-19, study (Business Insider)
Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’ (Financial Times)
‘Insufficient and late’: Commission slams Sweden’s coronavirus measures (The Local)
Herd immunity and COVID-19 (coronavirus): What you need to know (Mayo Clinic)
Anders Tegnell – Sweden’s Herd Immunity Gambit (The Daily Show with Trevor Noah)
In relief for retailers, Vietnam won’t close factories amid COVID surge (Reuters)
Endemic Covid: Is the pandemic entering its endgame? (BBC)
Life Post–Covid-19 (International Monetary Fund)
Related features from BDG
Dharma Amid Coronavirus
Buddhistdoor View: COVID-19 Knows No National Boundaries, Neither Should We
Dr. Eliot Tokar: The Novel Coronavirus Through the Lens of Tibetan Medicine
Love in the Time of Coronavirus, Part Three: Offering
Love in the Time of Coronavirus, Part Two: Bodhicitta
Love in the Time of Coronavirus, Part One: Refuge