The era of coronavirus restrictions is fading away, but that doesn’t mean Covid-19 is gone.
Governments are racing to scrap the last remaining pandemic measures, eager to reset the world after two years of dramatic upheaval. Even slow-mover Germany is planning to unwind curbs next week, despite setting records for infections on a daily basis.
Officials say data and science are behind the decisions, but politics, as well as weariness and frustration, are mixed in too.
While the world has changed since early 2020 and new approaches are justified, health officials warn that the virus remains part of our reality. It’s still circulating, new severe variants could emerge, or next winter could spark another seasonal surge. To them, governments appear to be rushing toward something that isn’t quite the finish line.
Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organization, says it’s “foolish” now to drop all precautions.
With the exception of China, which is sticking to Covid-zero policies, caution is a hard sell after two years of restrictions that disrupted everything from work to shopping and travel. The most severe measures — economically crippling lockdowns – pushed businesses underwater, workers out of jobs and triggered massive government borrowing to shore up economies.
It’s also clearly about much more than money. Almost 6 million people have died, and the grief of mourners was made harder by restrictions that cut loved ones off from each other and curtailed funerals.
The pandemic battle has also pitted politics against science. It fueled protests — like the trucker blockades in Canada over vaccine mandates — and became tangled up with the ideological differences that have deepened divisions in society.
“It was very disappointing to see the attack on scientists and science,” Swaminathan said in an interview on Bloomberg Quicktake. “It got stronger over the course of the pandemic, and it has a potential to do a lot of damage.”
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson accelerated easing plans this week, announcing that England’s final curbs would end later in February. Norway and Denmark have already ditched most restrictions. In South Africa, where the omicron variant was first identified before spreading at light speed around the world, self-isolation rules have been scrapped.
The UK offers a prime example of the multiple factors at play right now, and why some worry that governments are moving too fast.
Yes, the country’s vaccine rate is above 80%, more than half of the population is boosted, and hospitalizations have fallen sharply since their December peak. But tied up with the move to call time on the pandemic are accusations that Johnson is trying to distract from a scandal about rule-breaking lockdown parties that’s threatening his future as leader.
As governments offer voters the lure of normality — or “freedom” as some like to call it — anger remains, many of it linked to vaccination. France risks being hit with fresh protests this weekend similar to the ones in Canada that have disrupted businesses.
Among public-health experts, there’s concern that politicians have missed the lessons from the crisis, particularly the on again-off again curbs, and will be caught flatfooted if and when a relapse hits.
“For the past two years, we have misused the opportunity of the spring and summer, where behaviour limits transmission, not to make good on the hard-earned control from harsh lockdowns,” Stephen Griffin, a virology professor at the University of Leeds. “The promises around there not being a need for further restrictions in the future have proven hollow.”
Given the uncertainty about fresh Covid variants, potential spikes in infections and the risks of future pandemics, authorities will need to be ready, according to Richard Hatchett, who leads the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.
“It’s likely the case that the public will be able to enjoy some well-deserved relaxation as omicron subsides, but it’s incumbent on governments not to forget that we don’t know what’s coming next,” Hatchett, a former White House adviser, said in an interview.
Expanding home-testing, improving ventilation in public buildings, increasing efforts to track mutations and developing better vaccines and drugs that can work against a broad range of variants and other diseases are all part of the toolkit.
“The bottom line is that from a government perspective, from a risk-management perspective, we have to make investments with an assumption that we might have a bad scenario,” even if it’s less likely, Hatchett said.