When, how will Covid-19 end?

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Bertalan Mesko – IF YOU are staying shut in your home, anxious about when you will finally be able to take a stroll outside or whether you or someone close to you will be infected by the novel coronavirus, you are not the only one.

In the United States alone, half the adults report high levels of anxiety due to the Covid-19, according to the American Psychiatric Association. The ongoing pandemic is exerting the whole world both physically and mentally. One thing is sure to be asked by everyone: when will all this be over and when will Covid-19 end?

Some think that things will never get back to normal. Acclaimed sci-fi writer Ted Chiang says that “we don’t want everything to go back to business as usual, because business as usual is what led us to this crisis”.

In this article, we explore scenarios about how Covid-19 will give us some rest and when it could happen. Getting a definite answer for these might be impossible. It will largely depend on actions from every level: scientists, governments and the general public, and how well we adhere to these. These vary from country to country, but with the help of technology, we can find answers for this public health crisis.

In order to have an approximation of when one can see the light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel, people have been keeping track of the number of cases, which only keeps increasing. Online interactive dashboards like those from Johns Hopkins University and Microsoft are effective ways to keep track of the spread.

However, another way to visualise the direction we’re heading is via graphs plotting growth rate against cumulative cases on a logarithmic scale, rather than either of these plotted against time. This method can give an insight about detectable progress.

What it shows is that the disease is spreading similarly everywhere. It also shows when a country is recovering, like China and South Korea, the graph plummets down. You can track the graph adapted to your own country and observe the trend to see when you can catch a breather.

With social distancing measures and an eventual vaccine, Covid-19 will turn into a thing of the past. However, a vaccine will take at least a year before being publicly available even if Covid-19 is breaking records in vaccine development. But the tireless efforts of scientists will pay off.

A vaccine has already been sent for early clinical testing. But a publicly available version will take more time. It has to go through more testing for efficacy, side-effects and large scale production. Other companies and scientists are also working on other candidates to serve as a backup or more effective solution.

Working towards the same goal are data scientists who are lending a helping hand. They are using A.I.-based techniques to screen for potential drugs, forecast patient prognosis and help in diagnosis.

To visualise how the anticipated end of Covid-19 can unfold, we analyse three scenarios below. Of course, other developments can influence these scenarios, leading to different outcomes. However, the following gives a general trajectory of where we can be headed.In the most optimistic case, we could follow the Far East’s path. China’s swift and strict lockdowns led to the cases of new infections to plummet by March, according to official reports. South Korea had a success story thanks in part to surveillance, with individual bank transactions and phone use tracked to identify those infected. Such stringent measures might not be applicable everywhere; but drastic measures are effective to curb the spread as shown by an analysis from the Imperial College London. With these in place, we could bring the pandemic under control and gradually resume economic activity by the middle of the year.

The second, most likely scenario, could follow the trajectory most countries are following; enforcing lockdowns and reducing social contact while tracking those infected. However, many countries adopted such measures late or even downplayed the severity of the virus. The US wanted to ease its lockdown, while the UK flirted with the idea of “herd immunity” but revisited this decision. Sweden, on the other hand, already put a similar concept into practice, with mild restrictions and no lockdowns, worrying local experts. We’ve seen how overwhelmed healthcare facilities are getting, with lack of proper equipment and jam-packed wards due to the uncontrolled spread of the contagion.

Even those countries that contained the spread could face a second wave of infections if restrictions are lifted too early. This will lead to even more severe lockdowns and have us battle with Covid-19 the majority of the year.
(Dr. Bertalan Mesko, PhD is a medical futurist, an Amazon Top 100 author and director of The Medical Futurist Institute which analyses how science fiction technologies can become reality in medicine and healthcare).

Lastly, we have the worst case scenario and thankfully, the least likely one. The virus could brave through summer and thrive again in winter, leading to subsequent outbreaks. The overburdened healthcare systems around the world would crumble; mortality rate would shoot to 8-10 percent; and we would be relegated to wait for an effective vaccine.

While we can speculate on what will happen and wait to see the rest, certain aspects of the current situation will surely linger post-Covid-19. We probably won’t go down the same route as Demolition Man when it comes to bodily fluids and physical contact, at least not any time soon, but changes to our ingrained habits are bound to happen.

Now that surveillance helped to track the novel coronavirus’ spread in some countries, governments will enforce such measures under the guise of public health safety. Israel allowed its internal security agency to use phone location data in the pandemic; Singapore launched an opt-in version; and South Korea used data from CCTV footage, bank activity and phone use. These will raise new issues about privacy and ethics, as it already has in South Korea.

Given the nature of Covid-19’s transmission, people around the world will take time to readjust to working as a “global community”. We will have doubts about traveling, commuting and even working next to each other. We’re already seeing symptoms of social anxiety and agoraphobia exacerbate due to the pandemic. It will take time to trust the world and its functioning.

One of the pandemic’s key terms, social distancing, will be a part of our lives in the coming months. The Imperial College London’s analysis already warns of “hundreds of thousands of deaths” without social distancing. Both as a preventive measure and as a new-formed habit, social distancing will prevail long after borders open.

The Covid-19 experience will serve as a wake-up call to the severity of viral infections, increasing public health awareness. As a vaccine will take around a year to hit shelves, people will want to get those. Additionally, shots for the common flu will become more common.

Moreover, the most affected countries will have to rethink and redesign their healthcare systems. They will follow the example of countries like Germany, which adequately managed the pandemic. This can be attributed to a good supply chain, online data centres to reorganise supplies, strict measures about testing, professional and transparent communication. By adopting these measures, other countries can be better prepared for an eventual public health crisis.

 

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