Well, we appear to have decided that the pandemic is over. Not that people have stopped catching covid, you understand – or, indeed, actually expiring of it. Not that a vaccine or anything resembling herd immunity is anywhere within sight. Just that we’re… well, frankly, we’ve become a bit bored with it all.
Do you remember the early days? Remember February and March, when the virus was blazing around China and then it landed in northern Italy and started scything down the population there and then it escaped the locked-down cities in the north and spread to the rest of the country and it became terrifyingly apparent that this deadly beast was off the leash and was coming for the rest of us? Remember how every news website was plastered with articles about the virus and precisely nothing else? Remember how whenever you passed people in the street and overheard their conversations, every single conversation was about coronavirus? Remember when we were going through our list of contacts, calling everybody we knew to make sure they were OK?
Yes. Well. An attention span is an easily fatigued thing.
The news these days tends to be about unemployment, 5G networks and Johnny Depp’s private life. (To be fair, there are still news websites with dedicated sections for coronavirus news, but they are no longer fixed immovably at the top of the page.) Social distancing is a distant memory, as I recently noted. Those of a festive nature, craving music, dancing, socialisation and perhaps a little chemical-induced hallucination, can bear the calm no longer and are holding illegal raves in warehouses, in parks and under the railway bridge opposite my house. (The music was excellent, it has to be said. I was enjoying it very much until my killjoy neighbour called the police and they came over and put a stop to it.)
We’ve gone from being terrified of touching anything that somebody else has touched to blithely ripping off the netting that was supposed to keep us away from communal exercise equipment:
We’ve gone from venturing cautiously out once a day for a brisk walk to gathering in the park for picnics, games and socialising. Look at these people and tell me how many of them appear to be panicking:
Why are we so irresponsible? Certainly in the UK you’d think we’d be a bit more awake to the risks: the number of covid cases here has been huge – the second-highest number in Europe, after Spain, at the time of writing. But I think the issue is that the impact hasn’t been visible to everyone. I hardly know anyone who has had covid, and most of the people I have asked say they don’t know many people who have had it either. I expect that is because the cases are concentrated in certain hotspots, such as care homes, areas where a lot of people live in crowded accommodation, or communities that don’t have easy access to information, so if you don’t come into contact with those hotspots, the scale of the disease may well not be apparent to you.
For many of us, then, the most salient aspect of the pandemic has not been the disease itself but the lockdown – that affected everyone.
The lockdown was never going to last, though, and now its time is up. Now that the economy is threatening to dissolve and be swept away like a sandcastle in a rising tide, it’s time for everyone to get themselves back out and start being economically active again. (Or, as one desperate-sounding pub owner put it in a radio interview: “People must go back to spending! They must go back to consuming! I encourage young people especially to put the risk of the virus in perspective!”)
So now that the lockdown, which was the main pandemic indicator for many of us, is all but over, with just a few residual restrictions, the message we’re getting is that the crisis is over. We can go shopping again. We can socialise. We can go to the pub. My goodness, you should have seen the pubs on the day they reopened (“Super Saturday”, it was called): it was bedlam. Please look at this picture of central London on that day and lose all faith in humanity:
This New York Times article, entitled “How pandemics end”, explains that the end of a pandemic can be understood in two ways: the medical end, which is when people stop getting sick, and the social end, when people stop being scared. The article says that when people ask “When will this end?” it is the social end that they are asking about: “In other words, an end can occur not because a disease has been vanquished but because people grow tired of panic mode and learn to live with a disease.”
That is the phase we seem to have entered – the social end. Not everyone, to be sure – I know plenty of people are still being cautious, going out only if they need to and limiting contact with others – but in general we certainly don’t appear to be in crisis mode anymore.
I’ll check in with you again when the next wave hits.
(Did I say “wave”? I meant “surge”. This article, “It’s a wildfire, not a wave”, says that calling it a wave implies that it is independent of our actions and we just have to hold tight and wait for it to pass. But in reality we have to do more than just wait; we have to actively suppress the spread of cases. It’s more like a wildfire: if you just wait for it to pass, it will burn everything. You have to actively bring the fire under control – and then keep a lid on it, because as long as there are embers burning somewhere and there is unburnt fuel available, the flames can spread again.)