The world has no choice but to learn to live with COVID-19

The world has no choice but to learn to live with COVID-19

As coronavirus (COVID-19) infections are on the rise in much of the world, many cling to the hope that vaccines will soon bring life back to what we knew. It is eager thinking. Even if the vaccines prove effective, COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future – at least for the next five years. We will have to learn to live with it.

An international panel of scientists and social scientists, convened by the Charity Fund, recently built four pandemic scenarios. Key variables included what we can learn about the biology of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) – such as the rate of mutation and the degree to which antibodies cause infection – and the rate of vaccine development and effective deployment, antivirals and other treatments. The study then considered how each of these four scenarios would take place in five general environments: high-, middle- and low-income countries, as well as conflict zones and vulnerable environments such as refugee camps and prisons.

Even in the most optimistic of the four scenarios – characterized by relatively stable virus, effective vaccines and improved antiviral therapies – SARS-CoV-2 will not be eradicated in all five settings within five years, although community transmission could be eliminated within certain limits. And as long as one setting experiences a COVID-19 outbreak, all settings are vulnerable.

As the study shows, eradicating the virus and ending emergency medical care will require not only a vaccine that reduces transmission, but also effective treatments and quick, accurate tests. Such a medical tool should be available and accessible to everyone in each country and be deployed in a way that draws on global experience and engages local communities.

Yet, currently only one of the nine leading vaccine candidates is stopping the spread of the virus; others aim only to limit the weight of COVID-19. Moreover, although treatments for moderate and severe cases have improved significantly, they remain unsatisfactory. And testing is flawed, expensive and prone to supply chain weaknesses.

With such imperfect medical devices, non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), such as social distancing and wearing masks, are vital. Fortunately, most countries have recognized the crucial importance of early action, imposing strict rules to protect public health fairly quickly. Many have also provided strong economic support to protect lives and livelihoods in the midst of locks.

But short-term emergency measures like blankets without blankets are not a viable solution. Several countries – especially emerging and developing countries – can afford to lock up their economies, let alone stick to recommended policies until an effective vaccine is widely available.

Eradication of the virus will require not only a vaccine that reduces transmission, but also effective treatments and rapid, accurate tests.

Erik Berglof

Such measures should only slow down transmission and buy time for policy makers and health professionals to identify vulnerabilities and, guided by the contribution of the social sciences, devise innovative medium- and long-term strategies tailored to local conditions. Unfortunately, this time has not been used particularly wisely so far, as policymakers prefer to emulate each other’s solutions, rather than creatively applying lessons in ways that respect local conditions.

NPIs are not unambiguous for everyone. Nor is the process of bringing them back. As one group of researchers recently suggested, epidemiology – ideally complemented by behavioral sciences – must guide this process. In practice, this means that countries should ease restrictions only when they have robust systems to monitor the evolving public health situation and to monitor and search for infected individuals. And they should maintain other transmission reduction measures for a while, such as a face mask requirement. These measures must be supported by sustainable investments in public health and the capacity of the health system.

The political dimension of relevant decisions – for example on whether to open schools or allow large gatherings – must also be taken into account. Leaders must recognize the exchanges of their political options, recognizing that they can look very different, depending on the economic, social, and political context.

The way policy choices are made and implemented is largely important. An effective response must emphasize both individual and collective action, with people taking responsibility for themselves and their communities. Meanwhile, as countries such as Norway and Finland have shown, funding temporary “safety switches” – which all rich countries should be able to – can make progress in reducing community expansion.

Weak political leaders who think they can avoid the pain and dissatisfaction that restrictions bring ultimately impose higher costs on their population. Likewise, those who focus on who is doing better or worse miss the point: Everyone is better off if others are doing well. Competition over medical supplies and vaccine doses is counterproductive.

Thus, while individual countries must adapt solutions to local conditions, the COVID-19 response must ultimately be global. Resources must be directed to the most vulnerable countries and population groups. They must continue to be assigned to other public health imperatives, such as the fight against malaria.

The pandemic is already fostering inequality both within and within countries. Wealth is the most powerful protection against COVID-19, because it facilitates social distancing and everything except that it guarantees quality health care. But such inequalities weaken the resilience of the global community. Interventions that protect the most vulnerable are the most effective.

One day, the world may have the complete tools needed to eradicate the virus and will have to focus on building the infrastructure and implementing the logistical capacity to implement it. In the meantime, we should stop hoping for a quick return to “normal” and start developing comprehensive, creative and cooperative strategies for living with COVID-19.

• Eric Berglof is the chief economist at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this section are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab News