It seems as though from the very beginning of 2020— seemingly for the past two years— we have all been asking ourselves the same question: When is this going to be over? It seems as though every time we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, we are instead hit with a new wave or strain of the virus. With news of the highly contagious omicron variant beginning to spread from Africa, everyone is once again fearful that there will be no end in sight. But how can we tell when a pandemic is officially over? And is the omicron variant entirely bad news?
To understand how we’ll distinguish the end of COVID, we should look to other pandemics throughout history— particularly the 1918 flu pandemic, which is the closest thing to the COVID pandemic in our history. The 1918 flu, commonly known as the “Spanish flu” resulted in over 50 million worldwide deaths— making it the deadliest global pandemic since the Black Death. In the United States alone, the pandemic was so deadly that it lowered the average life expectancy by 12 years, according to History.com. But the thing is, the 1918 flu pandemic never really ended. Instead, the H1N1 strain that caused the deadly virus gradually weakened until it became the regular seasonal flu that we are familiar with today.
However, with that being said, the 1918 flu strain has mutated periodically throughout the years— creating far deadlier cousins. These descendents include the bird flu and the swine flu, both of which have had deadly consequences throughout the years. But even with these anomalies, the seasonal flu has simply become a part of our lives. Each year, we get immunized against it, and even if we catch the flu, it is very likely that our symptoms are not very severe.
With the recent omicron strain of the COVID virus, we are beginning to see a similar pattern. While this strain may be highly contagious— even for vaccinated people— the symptoms are appearing to be far more mild than earlier strains. In fact, recent reports of omicron variant infections in South African hospitals have shown a significant decline in severe cases of COVID. One such report, taken by the South African Medical Research Council found that out of the 42 patients hospitalized for coronavirus 70 percent were breathing ordinary air. Furthermore, out of the 13 people using supplemental oxygen, four of which were using it for reasons other than COVID— according to the New York Times.
However, even with these early signs of hope, governments who have faced criticism for slow responses to previous pandemic surges have already begun implementing new restrictions— particularly for travel. But while the restrictions may lead us to believe that there is no end in sight for COVID, the statistics are showing a far more optimistic turning point in the pandemic. So while the future of the COVID-19 pandemic may be anyone’s guess, history has provided us with the guidelines that we need to navigate this new stage of the pandemic— and maybe we are closer to its finale than we are led to believe.