Overview:

Biden says the pandemic is over. The WHO are not so sure. Fauci definitely disagrees. Who is right and why does it matter?

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“The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lotta work on it. It’s…but the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing. And I think this is a perfect example of it.”

That was President Joe Biden in a 60 Minutes interview on Sunday. And it’s been a long time coming. Throw away your masks, start hugging strangers again, and empty your hand gel into the sink.

But then: “The pandemic is not over, but the end is in sight.” That’s the opinion of the Director General of the World Health Organization. We can have full confidence in his expert opinion.

Then Dr. Anthony Fauci weighed in.

“We are not where we need to be if we’re going to be able to, quote, ‘live with the virus,’ because we know we’re not going to eradicate it,” admits the White House’s top medical advisor.

Fauci expects to see many variants still arise. According to him, the US is not where it needs to be because of the variation in how people and states are dealing with the virus. In an interview earlier this week, Fauci said:

And that gets to the other conflicting aspect of this—the lack of a uniform acceptance of the interventions that are available to us in this country where even now, more than two years, close to three years, into the outbreak, we have only 67 percent of our population vaccinated and only one-half of those have received a single boost.

Words are important. The word “pandemic” is especially important for its cultural and social impact, but also for the efforts countries and organizations put in as a result of its declaration.

So who is right? It depends on how you define that critical word.

According to the National Institutes of Health, a pandemic is “an epidemic of disease or other health condition, that occurs over a widespread area (multiple countries or continents) and usually affects a sizable part of the population.” That definition contains a lot of elbow room, including words like “sizeable.”

The real issue is that there are no established criteria that experts use to determine whether a pandemic has ended. There are no demarcations for an acceptable level of cases or deaths to help categorization, for example. Other criteria could be utilized too, such as “seasonality of outbreaks, vaccination rates, availability of effective treatments, and the transmissibility of current and new COVID-19 variants.”

Of course there is an arbitrary element to such decisions, but drawing the line somewhere might help pragmatically navigate the modern world of society and viruses.

Globally, there have been over 610 million cases of coronavirus, with the US daily cases peaking at 806,987 cases in January. As of September 17, there were 493,000 daily cases worldwide.

In truth, a lot of cases are going unreported as variants become less dangerous, testing is scaled back, and people have become used to the virus being around. Although there are increases in Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, among other places, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has scaled back on COVID restrictions. That said, it is worth noting that in the U.S., COVID is still killing between 400 and 500 people daily.

The CDC has not publicly declared the end to the pandemic. In fact, several scientists have been dismayed at the President’s words. The pandemic, or more specifically the virus, has changed. And in a cost-benefit analysis of restrictions in terms of people’s lives, personal freedoms, and economic cost almost certainly looks different now than it did 18 months ago.

When it comes to claiming that a pandemic is over, we should probably defer to the organization that is the gatekeeper of such declarations: the World Health Organization (WHO). And WHO’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, concludes, “It’s still a little premature to say that we’re over it.”

And prematurely declaring it over might be dangerous for a host of reasons, like backsliding on necessary measures, and leading to complacency and people thinking taking booster jabs is now unimportant.

Eric Topol, director of Scripps Research Translational Institute in California, says that “the virus is still ahead of us.” It’s not, for him, a time to make sweeping statements to please audiences and populations, but “it’s time to be bold about accelerating to a point where we look to say, we nailed it, we did it.”

We can perhaps forgive Biden, and certainly understand why it might feel like he can say it is over because things certainly seem different. But that claim carries with it a whole array of ramifications. With great power comes great responsibility, and it’s not apparent that this was the most responsible thing to say.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...