2022 – The Year We Say Goodbye To COVID-19?

Comfortable Eating Alone

On Tuesday, January 18th, a senior World Health Organization official claimed that we can say goodbye to COVID-19 by the end of 2022. Michael Ryan, the executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, clarified that he didn’t mean the end of the virus. “We won’t ever end the virus — what we can end is the public health emergency.” Ryan clarified that COVID will remain an endemic virus, like malaria, so it’ll always be a looming danger. With high vaccination rates and low levels of disease incidence, however, he can see a future where COVID deaths become a rarity.

Are Boosters Helping?

The WHO”s focus on worldwide health gives it a very different view on COVID than any of its member nations. For the past several months, WHO officials have been warning about the possible downsides of distributing booster shots in some countries while others still struggle to get citizens vaccinated at all. In December, Director-General Ghebreyesus went as far as to claim that “blanket booster programs are likely to prolong the pandemic,” and that “no country can boost its way out of [COVID].” The logic is simple. Even if countries like the United States achieve high booster rates, international travelers who visit countries struggling with basic vaccines will bring new, mutated forms of the virus that will eventually overwhelm the vaccine’s protection.

Living With Omicron

The recent COVID variant, Omicron, has proven to be more infectious. While it seems to be less deadly on a per-case basis, health professionals stress that the new variant’s faster spread might actually make things worse. Hospitals around the world have been struggling to deal with patient surges from Omicron waves. Fewer patients are requiring ventilators than with previous COVID variants, but they still require doctors, nurses, and hospital beds. The WHO suggests that prevention is just as important as ever. It recommends vaccines, masks, staying far apart from other people, and avoiding poorly ventilated public spaces.

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A Cultural Shift

It’s not clear if things will ever go back to “the way things were” before COVID. Wearing masks in public was already commonplace in countries like Japan, and it might remain somewhat common for people to continue masking up in the rest of the world as Omicron dwindles down. Businesses have invested in anti-COVID infrastructures like improved ventilation and disinfecting systems. These don’t just help prevent COVID. Better airflow fights off other airborne pathogens and keeps buildings pleasant, while COVID-19 cleaning services can fight off a whole host of viruses and bacteria. If we can retain some of these adaptations after COVID finally dies down, we’ll likely fight off the next pandemic before it even starts.

An Endemic Virus

The WHO seems to think that COVID won’t go away entirely. Instead, it will become something closer to malaria or HIV: a societal problem, but not one that’s a constant, global threat. It stresses that the virus is a global issue, not a local one, and cautions against countries vaccinating their populations before everyone has a chance to get the virus. According to the WHO, we’ve got a good chance of fighting off the virus by the end of 2022. While endemic COVID will hopefully stop taking up the lion’s share of hospital beds, our societal adaptations to the virus will stick with us, including remote work and regular cleaning. We’ll have the tools and systems in place to combat airborne pathogens more efficiently. As long as we’re willing to let these changes linger, we’ll keep the next pandemic a long way away.

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