It’s been two years since the World Health Organization sounded the alarm on the coronavirus, declaring that a virus Americans had apprehensively watched from afar as it emerged from China, surfaced in Europe and struck decisively on the West Coast was, in fact, a global pandemic.
“We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general, said at a news conference in March 2020.
At that time, few could have imagined how the world would change. Now, after a transformative era that saw business, education, economy and travel come to an unthinkable halt as authorities enforced curfews, restrictions and standards of hygiene, the world is struggling to push forward from the pandemic – the ramifications of which are proving to be lasting and can perhaps be best measured in loss: loss of life, loss of income and loss of trust.
“This Friday marks two years since we said that the global spread of COVID-19 could be characterized as a pandemic,” Tedros said at a press conference this week, adding a sobering assessment of how far the world has come. “As a reminder, we made that assessment six weeks after we declared COVID-19 a global health emergency – when there were fewer than 100 cases and no deaths outside China. Two years later, more than 6 million people have died.”
In the U.S., the death toll is approaching 1 million. But research shows that the actual global death toll could be more than three times higher than the official numbers due to questions about data and limited testing.
President Joe Biden made an effort to sketch out a post-pandemic America, recently urging Americans to return to their offices in a thinly veiled effort to help the economy, which was roiled by the pandemic and is now shaken by war in Ukraine.
“It’s time for America to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again with people,” Biden said during his State of the Union address. “People working from home can feel safe and begin to return to their offices.”
He also called for an end to school shutdowns, which sent parents scrambling to implement remote learning at several points during the pandemic.
“Our schools are open,” Biden said. “Let’s keep it that way.”
The optimism was well-received in the U.S., which not only bore the brunt of reported cases and deaths but also watched as the virus rent its culture between those who adhered to (sometimes shifting) scientific guidance and those who were skeptical of the virus’ ravaging effects. People came to look at states, businesses, celebrities, politicians, athletes and even neighbors differently, depending on their acceptance or rejection of things like lockdowns, masks and vaccines.
Cartoons on the Coronavirus
Now, coronavirus infections and deaths are on the decline both in the U.S. and worldwide after waves in which the deadly delta variant overwhelmed the health care system and the highly transmissible omicron variant sent caseloads higher than ever recorded. And Many governments are eager to relax mitigation measures. In the U.S., more than 90% of the population lives in areas where they can stop wearing a mask indoors, according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite populations eager to consider a future beyond the coronavirus, some say it’s too soon for the world to drop mitigation measures – and to look past a virus that continues to kill an average of more than 7,000 people in a given day.
“Although reported cases and deaths are declining globally, and several countries have lifted restrictions, the pandemic is far from over – and it will not be over anywhere until it’s over everywhere,” Tedros said.
While U.S. officials cited “widespread population immunity” amid the relaxing of mitigation measures, experts are quick to point out that immunity from both vaccination and infection fade, and measures might need to be reimplemented in the future. And there’s always the lingering fear that the longer the virus spreads the greater the possibility of a new and even more deadly variant.
Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that Americans should be mindful that there could be a time when widespread masking is needed again – even within the next year, potentially.
“We are definitely not out of the woods yet. And I think we have to continue to be vigilant over the course of the next few years and continue to be flexible, so that we can build this population immunity enough to control the virus and get to a place where society agrees that we are managing it with less daily disruption to our lives,” Althoff says.
Althoff says that one lesson to be learned from the past two years is the role that misinformation plays in shaping peoples’ beliefs. The development seriously undermines trust in public health officials, she adds.
“Misinformation is so powerful, and it spreads so quickly,” says Althoff. “To say that there has been a decrease in the trust of scientists and public health – damage done by a lot of misinformation – is probably an understatement. I think rebuilding that trust and helping folks to understand and think critically when faced with all this data is really going to be important as we continue to move forward.”
As coronavirus vaccines were developed and rolled out in record time, many researchers were caught off guard by the level of hesitancy seen. Even now, just 65% of the total U.S. population is fully vaccinated and significantly fewer have gotten their booster shots despite widespread vaccine availability.
According to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation data, roughly 16% of Americans say they “definitely” won’t get the shot – a number that has held mostly steady over the last several months.
“We’ve got to figure out how to address this hesitancy and how to more successfully communicate,” Althoff says.
And it’s important to remember that not everyone has access to the shots yet. In the U.S., shots for children under 5 have faced multiple setbacks, delaying an authorization many parents hoped would have come months ago.
“Those children and their families have borne a huge burden in this pandemic,” Althoff says. “It’s been a lot, and those folks are still waiting for a vaccine.”
Vaccination rates and access also vary widely worldwide.
As little as 14% of people in low-income countries have received their first shot, according to one estimate.
“We have to remember our world is not yet vaccinated,” Althoff says, adding that transmission of the virus gives it a chance to mutate and create new variants.