On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization classified COVID as a pandemic. Three years later, it remains that way.
As much as we don’t want it, and as much as it would like it to make the front pages, COVID is still very much with us.
But how bad has it really been? And more importantly, what have we learned that could help us accelerate a genuine and sustainable exit?
COVID has hit us hard
There was a slow initial global response to what we now call SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID. This allowed the virus to gain a foothold, contributing to an unexpectedly rapid viral evolution.
Three years into the pandemic, with the removal of almost all mitigation measures in most countries, it is clear that the virus has hit the world very hard. Nearly 681 million infections and more than 6.8 million deaths have been reported so far.
This is perhaps best visualized by its impact on life expectancy. 2020 and 2021 saw sharp declines around the world, reversing 70 years of largely uninterrupted progress.
The excess mortality that caused this drop in life expectancy has continued. This also applies to Australia, where it is estimated that more than 20,000 more lives have been lost than the historical average in 2022.
Not just COVID deaths
The indirect impact on health systems in both rich and poor countries remains significant. Healthcare disruptions have led to an increase in stillbirths, maternal deaths and postpartum depression.
Standard childhood immunization coverage has declined. Critical malaria, tuberculosis and HIV programs have been disrupted.
A paper released this week highlights the serious impact of the pandemic on mental health worldwide.
Then there is long COVID
Meanwhile, more evidence of long-term COVID has emerged around the world. It is estimated that at least 65 million people would experience this debilitating syndrome by the end of 2022.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates that 5-10% of people infected with SARS-CoV-2 will develop long-term COVID, with symptoms lasting more than three months. That’s between 550,000 and 1.1 million Australians, based on the more than 11 million cases reported to date.
COVID exposed inequalities
The pandemic has also had a huge economic impact, both direct and indirect.
The United States alone has spent $4 trillion on its response. Economists estimate that the pandemic will contribute to an average GDP reduction of 0.75% by 2025 in countries with high infection rates and high productivity.
Studies in the UK, US and Australia show that COVID has had a disproportionate impact – including higher death rates – in disadvantaged communities and ethnic minorities.
The causes range from high exposure in low-paid jobs to inadequate access to health care. And poorer countries have fared horribly from COVID on all fronts, including unequal access to vaccines.
There’s no end in sight
We cannot assume that there will be a natural way out of the pandemic, with the virus reaching a benign endemic form, a harmless presence in the background.
In fact, there is little evidence that such a thing is imminent.
More than 235,000 COVID cases have been reported in Australia since the beginning of January, almost as many as in 2020 and 2021 combined. As of early January, there have been 2,351 COVID-related deaths, more than twice the number for all of 2020 and about the same as for all of 2021.
What should be done now?
The future response can be practically distilled into three overlapping actions.
1. Politicians must be honest
Our political leaders must communicate candidly to the public that the pandemic is not over. They should emphasize that we still have an exceptional problem with acute illness and troubling concerns about long-term COVID. It is crucial that politicians recognize the patients and the deceased. They must do this while delivering the good news that tackling COVID does not require lockdowns or mandates.
If our politicians did this, the public would be more likely to get their booster vaccines, get tested and treated, and take measures like improving indoor ventilation and wearing quality masks.
The health system also needs to be greatly strengthened to cope with the protracted COVID.
2. Avoiding infections remains important
Suppressing the virus remains important. We can and still must reduce the burden of newly acquired COVID and thus long COVID. We have the tools to do this.
We must fully recognize that COVID is largely airborne. As this just-published article in the journal Nature discusses, there are things we can do now to ensure we all breathe air that is safer not only from SARS-CoV-2 but other respiratory viruses as well.
3. Adopt new knowledge and technology
We need to focus on science and be ready to quickly apply new knowledge and products.
Just a few days ago, we had trials of a promising new approach to treat long-term COVID with the diabetes drug metformin.
There is also intriguing research that has identified persistent infection as a possible underlying cause of post-COVID and long-COVID organ damage and disease. This suggests that antiviral drugs such as Paxlovid can play an important role in reducing the impact of chronic diseases.
Many types of new COVID vaccines are being trialled, such as versions administered through nasal sprays, which could be game changers.
The virus does not repair itself
As we enter the fourth year of the pandemic, we must not leave it to the virus to sort itself out.
The biggest lesson of the past three years is that there is little chance that it will work, at least without an unacceptably high cost.
We can end the pandemic voluntarily sooner. We know what to do. But we just don’t.
Michael Toole, Associate Principal Research Fellow, Burnet Institute and Brendan Crabb, Director and CEO, Burnet Institute
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NewsMadura staff and is being published from a syndicated feed.)
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