At first, it was thought to be a mere rumor but then it became news then we thought it might be a strain that will be contained in China and the rest of the world is safe. But we were certainly wrong.
Before the end of the first quarter of the year 2020, the entire world has started feeling the tremendous impact of what would become a global pandemic.
It was highly contagious and it was very deadly. The SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused COVID-19 soon became an unseen threat to the entire human existence if drastic action isn’t taken fast enough.
That same month of March, it was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization’s boss, Tedros Ghebreyesus.
Many countries across the globe began shutting down their economy or at least moving completely online to reduce human contact to not overwhelm their healthcare system.
During that period, a lot happened. A lot of measures were taken many of which were opposed by skeptics.
That same year, vaccines were developed which further spiraled skepticism among critics who think vaccines made under a period of six months aren’t perfect enough to be established on real human subjects as there aren’t enough data to back the efficacy or health benefits of the vacation.
The aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic was tremendous and has changed a lot about how we work, commute, communicate, and transact.
Looking back now and moving forward ahead, the year 2023 and whatever lies ahead seems brighter compared to 2020 but a lot of lessons have been learned considering millions of lives lost to the unfortunate event that plagued the beginning of a new decade.
COVID-19 Came to be with us
Most people who didn’t live in China weren’t particularly concerned about the new strain when it was first officially announced back in 2019. Most people in the west thought it was something that would be contained within the region or at least, the cover-up by the Chinese government about the severity of the disease didn’t give the rest of the world enough time to prepare for the unforeseen circumstance.
Even though there had been several respiratory disease outbreaks in the past including the 2004 SARS outbreak, it’s a history that many didn’t entirely know about because it was a time in the past.
COVID-19 proved to be different from the ones we’ve encountered in the past. According to a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, Nashville, Tennessee, Dr. Wiliam Schaffner, the virus behaved very differently than its cousins such as SARS and MERS.
“This is one where it became very apparent that either asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic transmission could occur widely, with only a relatively small proportion of people,” Schaffner told Healthline.
“That completely changed the entire public health and clinical perspective of this virus. And as soon as that became evident, we said at that time, ‘Oh dear, we’re in for something that looks like a pandemic. And this is going to be a very big deal.’”
Another complexity added to the outbreak was its newness which means there just wasn’t enough data about the new virus even though scientists were able to use existing data from similar viruses to understand how the new strain works even though there just wasn’t enough to work with in the first place.
The world was certainly caught off guard.
Considering many factors such as the infectious nature of the new virus, its incubation period, and the fact that people travel all the time, Dr. Susan Cheng who is an associate dean in the Public Health Practice at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in Louisiana said those made it extremely difficult to outright contain the virus.
“Although it was first seen in late 2019, it took several more months to produce enough COVID-19-specific tests to start to get a better picture of the scope and breadth of the infection and for the U.S. to identify enough cases domestically to declare the disease a pandemic and respond effectively,” she said. “Until tests and data were available, it was difficult to establish accurate estimates of the level of disease transmission and prevalence in the country.”
In the United States alone, over 1,500 casualties have been reported before the end of March with over 100,000 cases of infection.
Politicizing public health
The steps taken to curb or at least contain the fast-spreading virus have been criticized by a lot of people, especially with a lot of dishonesty and politicizing the pandemic all of which has led to broken trust between citizens and their government.
Masks were mandatory and shelter-in-place was another method used to curb the spread. This certainly led to the global economy being shut down for weeks. Many people lost their jobs and those that didn’t have to work from home and virtually.
The response to the COVID-19 pandemic had to come together quickly — and the results weren’t always optimal.
Dr. Cheng said that many of these rules had negative knock-on effects.
“For instance, while schools were kept remote and closed, several larger cities still allowed indoor gatherings for dining or entertainment without consistent mask policies,” she said. “Not providing opportunities for schools to operate under safer mitigation guidelines provided many challenges to working parents, which in turn impacted the workforce.”
She also believes that the COVID-19 response funds would have been well-spent if it was targeted at providing better ventilation in buildings, providing household tests, as well as developing high-quality masks, and even a protected workplace eave policies for quarantine and isolation in order t provide more stability for workers.
Another comment came from Dr. Monica Gandhi who is a professor of medicine and an associate division chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at UCSF/San Francisco General Hospital said “I think the effects on learning loss and economic achievement from our prolonged school closures will have manifestations for our low-income children — as well as those from racial or ethnic minority groups — for a long time.”
Another challenge was messaging.
Schaffner points out that it’s tough for a large, diverse country like the United States to be consistent across its various states and territories.
“Think of it as an orchestra,” he said. “If you let the different instruments play on their own, you get a cacophony. Chaos. However, if they’re all playing from the same sheet of music — not necessarily playing the same note simultaneously — you have beautiful music.”
“We delegated a response to the pandemic to the states and what you got was cacophony when what we needed was strong central leadership,” he continued. “That communication should come from public health leadership and the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), but then the politicians have to help for that to be effective.”
Did the Mask policy work?
The policy of wearing masks became obligatory especially if you are going outdoors or going to a public place.
While proponents of masks said wearing them generally curbed the spread of aerosolized droplets that cause infection, mask mandates did not work as well as expected.
The enforcement was to at least reduce the intensity of contraction considering the contagious nature of the new virus which soon mutated into several strains making it even hard to treat.
There were also inconsistencies with the application of masks that weren’t often in compliance with medical directions.
Another factor that hindered the complete efficacy of masking was the human factor where some people won’t wear their masks properly as directed.
“Since the Omicron variant was so transmissible, universal contact tracing was dropped by the CDC in March 2022 and studies from universities like Cornell showed that universal testing and mask mandates did not contain its spread — although vaccines continued to work well,” said Gandhi.
“Mask mandates by themselves don’t seem to work. Although that may seem counterintuitive, this is likely because people wear different kinds of masks and wear them in different ways, like below the nose. A large Cochrane review — considered our gold standard in summarizing evidence-based medicine — recently showed that population-level masking did not have a significant effect by the current studies on COVID-19 spread.”
Another factor was the politicization of the mask policy but what is worth noting is the fact that one-way masking can protect at-risk individuals even though the widespread masking policies proved to be largely ineffective.
Skeptics and Vaccines
Another politicized measure was compulsory vaccination which many have criticized as being against human freedom of choice. But is that the case?
One of the arguments of vaccine skeptics was the timeframe from the development to the mass vaccination campaigns which many thought to be a cash-grabbing avenue for big pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer.
As mentioned earlier, there were trust issues between people and the government as the pandemic soon became a political tool by opposing governments and political parties.
Take for example, the US president at that time, President Donald Trump often referred to COVID-19 as a Chinese Virus but that soon led to racist attacks on many Chinese-American citizens with many thinking the Chinese government manufactured the virus and spread them to the west while the Chinese government opposed this views saying the virus was imported b American soldiers.
There were many theories about the SARS-COV-2 emanating from a Wuhan virology laboratory, a theory that many still claim to be true to date.
Also, the WHO Director-General was criticized to be in bed with the Chinese government which also reflected in the naming of the virus Corona-Virus-Disease-2019 or COVID-19 instead of the Wuhan Virus, just as diseases have always been named after where they came from such as Ebola Virus or MERS which stands for Middle-East-Respiratory-Syndrome, and so forth.
Also, a lot of misinformation spiraled across social media all of which led to mistrust. This made it extremely difficult for scientists to simply do their work because even within their community, there were conflicting views regarding the disease.
While it’s impossible to put a positive spin on the virus itself, it’s still worth noting that the response to this virus showed many success stories.
“When we opened our textbooks, figuratively speaking, to COVID, what we found was blank pages,” said Schaffner. “So we all started from scratch.”
An early success story, said Schaffner, was the quick development of rapid tests — first at testing centers, and then through the dissemination of take-at-home tests.
The development of vaccines was also important but there was the need to utilize data on similar viruses which allowed scientists to be able to work on the COVID vaccine as fast as they possibly can.
The world would have been in a much more chaotic place if not for the vaccines.
“It was applied very quickly — I mean, within hours of the molecular biologist letting us know what the genome of this virus was,” Dr. Schaffner said. “People at the National Institutes of Health immediately went to work.”
Dr. Cheng echoes Dr. Schaffner’s sentiment that the rapid development of the vaccine was a major success story.
“In previous pandemic preparedness analyses, the rough estimate to produce and disseminate enough vaccines would have been in the 18- to 36-month span,” she said. “However, the mRNA vaccines were able to capitalize on advances made in mRNA technology in general, and years of research on SARS and MERS more specifically.”
“There were also more local success stories here in the U.S., such as the rapid and high rates of vaccination uptake in Navajo Nation after the high levels of infection that were reported early on,” Dr. Cheng added.
The light ahead of the tunnel
While the world is trying to forget about the tragic outcome of the pandemic which led to the loss of millions of lives across the globe, it’s also important to take a look back at what has changed in the past three years.
Even though the advent of vaccinations played a major role in combating infectious diseases, we also shouldn’t forget the tremendous impact that the human body took to combat the disease.
Natural Immunity was developed among the population, this made the disease more manageable as opposed to 2020 when most people do not have natural immunity against the disease.
New researchTrusted Source shows that people who’ve been infected with COVID-19 or one of its variants are generally protected against reinfection for 40 weeks. In all, the protection from natural infection was comparable to the protection conferred by two vaccine doses.
As of now, the disease is still officially a pandemic but there is certainly going to be a complete end to it even though the disease is here to stay but soon get downgraded to an endemic.
“Unfortunately, a knowledge of the history of infectious diseases has shown us that COVID-19 does not have the features of an eradicable virus,” said Dr. Gandhi.
“Smallpox was successfully eradicated worldwideTrusted Source [in 1980], not only because of the vaccine but because of some unique characteristics of the virus. Smallpox infection conferred natural immunity for life,” Dr. Gandhi said.
She notes that SARS-CoV-2 — the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — has none of these features.
“With ongoing circulation, we will likely continue to see new subvariants, but COVID-19 is becoming more predictable like influenza and not mutating as much,” she added.
While the disease can’t be entirely wiped out of existence, Dr. Gandhi thinks it’s important to continue to get booster shots, especially for older individuals and vulnerable people.
Dr. Shaffner also said there is yet to be a good rapport between health professionals, politicians, and the general public, something which COVID-19 exposed with ease.
“We’re still not at the place where the whole orchestra is playing from the same sheet of music under one conductor and we need to move toward that,” he said. “To get us to a place where we can handle things should there be another pandemic, we would need to be more secure to initiate a coherent, comprehensive, and accepted responsibility.”
Dr. Cheng says the response to the pandemic laid bare the many gaps in public health and social infrastructure that still exist.
“The devastating health inequities faced by many sectors of our communities, our Black and brown folks, our folks living in assisted living facilities or in prisons, our folks working in manufacturing, our indigenous folks, highlighted the social determinants of health impact on individuals and communities differently,” she explained.
“The ability of governments, healthcare systems, public health, and communities to respond to COVID-19 was impressive and saved millions of lives,” Cheng continued. “However, there are still many areas of improvement to be ready to respond more effectively to the next pandemic — and the next pandemic is a matter of when, and not if.”