ON Sept 7, 2021, Mike Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organisation had some startling news to share. Covid-19, he believed, is “here to stay with us”. Addressing those who think otherwise, Ryan said: “People have said we’re going to eliminate or eradicate the virus. No we’re not, very, very unlikely.” Ryan is not alone.
Recently, the chief medical adviser, Dr Anthony Fauci, also said that like influenza, Covid-19 is going to stay with us forever. Vaccines while providing temporary protection will not eliminate the virus because it will continue proliferating in countries where people have not been vaccinated. Things could have been different, officials at the WHO have said, if the virus had been identified and isolated in its early stages. That, we all know, did not happen and as a consequence the plague-fatigued world has become a dreadful and diseased version of its former self.
It is a frightening prospect. One reason why most people endure the hardship of social distancing, of not going to restaurants, avoiding crowds, wearing masks and all the other measures is to imagine that eventually there will be respite. Mothers sending their under-12 and hence unvaccinated children to school will not have to worry that they will bring home the virus. Weddings will not be terrifying events where risk lingers everywhere and hovers over everyone. People will be able to embrace each other and enjoy each other’s company without being masked up and far away. Old people will not live with the risk of a deadly upper respiratory virus that can kill them in a flash.
It appears that all of that hope of a return to normal is misguided. If WHO’s Mike Ryan, Dr Fauci and scores of others are to be believed, it does not seem that there is a possibility of a return to normal. Life, from here on, is likely to involve more masking and distancing, shots and more shots, boosters against variants, boosters to whet immunity and so on. The young will take the risk, they will continue to mingle and meet in the old way, and a good number of them might pay for being so daring. Old people and disabled people will remain housebound. Borders will remain indefinitely shut, highly vaccinated countries will (unfairly) continue to ban citizens of countries where the virus is prevalent or where vaccinations are not taking place. There may even be curbs on the entry of people who have received vaccines that are thought to provide less protection than others. Disease will become a demarcation that will reiterate the boundaries between the rich and the poor, the best vaccinated and the least vaccinated. If passports were a headache in the pre-Covid world, vaccine passports will likely be an even bigger headache.
How does one prepare to live in a world where Covid-19 is a regular fixture? One glimmer of hope lies in the possibility of a pandemic morphing eventually into an endemic. This can only happen when the majority of the world has been exposed either through infection or through vaccination. At that point, the mutations, like the Delta variant will become less common as the virus has to work harder to infect people. But making peace with the eventual possibility of being exposed also means a resignation to the reality that millions of people — the immune-compromised, the elderly, those undergoing cancer treatments or those that have received transplants — will find it hard to cling on to life. To me, the very idea that the 5m-plus global dead may be joined by many millions more is terrifying.
How does one prepare to live in a world where Covid-19 is a regular fixture?
In the meantime, some accommodations will bode well for young Pakistanis. The eventual outcome of the Western world’s move towards remote working may present opportunities that have not been available yet. The inability to get visas and other obstacles that have kept people from competing for jobs abroad will not be as determinative as they used to be. It will not take long for virtual technology to make it possible to hire workers anywhere and integrate them into global teams. The more Pakistan invests in global connectivity and tries to take advantage of foreign labour markets that need workers to be data analysts or other similar professionals, the better it would be for the emerging workforce in Pakistan. Migration, especially migration for white-collar jobs that do not require physical labour or physical presence, may even become obsolete in a work from home world.
Navigating personal and familial relationships will become trickier. Whether we like it or not, Covid-19 is shrinking our social circles and our spheres of interaction. After all, interactions with strangers now come with the additional threat of being exposed to the virus. Should one really meet up with an almost-friend, a work acquaintance etc if it is not absolutely necessary? The answer for most people is no. Here too, virtual interactions will become the norm and so will our openness to considering them equivalent to real interactions in a way we would have refused a mere two years ago.
With WHO officials announcing that Covid-19 is here to stay, the writing is on the wall. The government must consider sustainable measures to combat surges which threaten to occur again and again, and invest in greater connectivity so that everyone has access to remote working and learning. Furthermore, government services provision, tax collection etc must all be shifted online to prevent as many people as possible from having to line up repeatedly for this or that. The virus is here to stay so points of physical interaction between people must be reduced in every way possible. Finally, the poor who can access none of these measures and who are being offered up as Covid-fodder desperately need more humanitarian assistance and support. In simple terms, being resigned to the perpetual presence of Covid-19 need not mean being similarly resigned to the death of millions.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2021