When will COVID-19 be over?

In January 2020, I had a bout of cold. As a precautionary measure I wore a mask to the office. It was before COVID-19 became the monster it is known as now. One of my colleagues joked: “do you have Corona?”.

That day, the number of global cases were around 200 – all centered in the Wuhan region of China. But the new virus somehow had a deep impact on my mind and way of life, and I started wearing facemasks diligently, despite no cases of COVID-19 in my city. I ended up becoming the butt of jokes at my workplace, home, and social gatherings. Few days later, the US reported its first case of COVID-19 somewhere in Chicago. A week or so later, India reported its first case in Kerala.

And then rest is history. The global pandemic, now in its second year, has killed 3.8 million people across the globe and infected 177.4 million people. At least, that is the official number. With serious questions being raised over the official numbers reported by India and China, the actual tally might be way more mind-boggling.

COVID-19 has infected 2.3% of the world’s population already and killed 0.05% of them. It has changed the way we live. The once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic has taken such a toll on psychology of everyone that it will take years to come out of it. In many cases, offering help, is considered COVID-inappropriate behaviour. A friend of mine had gone out for the dinner date in the US and started feeling cold. Her date offered her his leather jacket, but she was hesitant to take it – fearing the virus.

The pandemic has turned the previously accepted set of etiquettes on their head and now things like offering a jacket or hugging someone or for that matter, even handshakes might be frowned upon. It comes as no surprise that everyone is waiting for the pandemic to be over.

But why is it called pandemic and not epidemic?

Basically, both words – epidemic and pandemic – are of Greek origin. To put it simply, when an epidemic becomes multinational, it is called a pandemic. The word epidemic is derived from two different Greek words – epi which stands for upon or above and demos that translated into people. So epidemic is a situation when a disease spreads rapidly to many people in a particular geographical zone over a short time. Similarly pandemic also is made of two Greek words: pan that stands for all and demos meaning people. Pandemic is a situation when there is a rapid spread of a transmissible infectious disease over many continents or worldwide. So, had COVID-19 been contained in China, it would have been called as an epidemic. However, as it has managed to hit hard almost every other country globally, it is called a pandemic.

What is COVID-19 and how it did it spread so far and so fast?

Before we get to the details of this, it is pertinent to note that COVID-19 is the acronym for the full name “coronavirus disease of 2019”. It is caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), as scientists call it. For the uninitiated, SARS-CoV-2 belongs to a family of Coronaviruses – a family of viruses that cause illness among people with symptoms ranging from common cold to more severe diseases. The predecessor of COVID-19 was Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV). According to Lauren Sauer, M.S., director of operations for the Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response, COVID-19 is an airborne disease – a conclusion that many have come to over the course of past year. It spreads through “droplets and virus particles released into the air when an infected person breathes, talks, laughs, sings, coughs or sneezes. Larger droplets may fall to the ground in a few seconds, but tiny infectious particles can linger in the air and accumulate in indoor places, especially where many people are gathered and there is poor ventilation,” according to Ms Sauer.

Are we nearing the end of the pandemic?

To say that we are nearing the end of the pandemic, will be a naïve remark. Despite a 30% drop in the weekly cases coming in from India – the latest epicentre of the virus – the global weekly case count has only come down by 9%. If we look at the numbers coming in from South Africa, they look scary. The weekly case count has surged 54% as the country has said that it is experiencing a third wave of the COVID-19 virus. The countries like the US, India and many others in Europe have only gone through two waves till now. So, South Africa shows how the third wave is very much possible: if it can hit South Africa, it would be matter of time before it reaches other places in the world. But the bigger worry is coming from the UK. The country has reported a 45% surge in weekly COVID-19 cases – primarily because of a new variant called Delta Plus. The new variant is the mutation of Delta variant (B.1.617.2) – that was first detected in India. The new variant is said to be resistant to monoclonal antibodies’ cocktail.

What does history say?

The last time the world witnessed such a severe pandemic – it was 1918, the Spanish flu. Officially, the first cases of the Spanish Flu were detected in the United States (in Kansas) in March 1918 and then in April in France, Germany and the United Kingdom. But experts suggest that it was at least a year or two before the virus started to spread. Since it was World War I time, the Allied and Axis powers censored any kind of news on Spanish Flu to keep the morale of army high. However, amid all this, the newspapers in neutral Spain were free to report. They started reporting this “grave illness” among people, along with King Alfonso XIII, at a time when other countries were not reporting it. This gave the impression that Spain was badly hit compared with other nations, but that was not the case. Officially, the pandemic lasted for over two years, killing anywhere between 17 million to 100 million people.

If Spanish Flu is considered as a precedent, it would take COVID-19 at least a year more before it is on its way out.

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