Over the weekend, President Joe Biden declared the covid-19 pandemic over—the latest in a long line of people with a public platform to do so over the past two-plus years. But while it may be true that covid-19 will be a tamer disease moving forward, the current status quo isn’t all that great.
Biden’s proclamation came during an interview Sunday night with 60 Minutes. “The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with covid. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. It’s—but the pandemic is over,” Biden said.
There is definitely reason to be optimistic. Currently, the seven-day average of daily reported covid cases is around 60,000, down from the 100,000-plus daily cases seen throughout much of the summer. Perhaps most importantly is that covid-related deaths have been relatively low as well. In fact, since early spring, the daily average of covid deaths in the U.S. has hovered around 500 or lower, even during the summertime peak of cases. Worldwide, deaths have fallen to their lowest since the very first days of the pandemic in early 2020—news that led the World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to say last week that the end of the pandemic “is in sight.”
There is no official arbiter of what makes a pandemic a pandemic. But generally, it’s a label given to a novel infectious disease that’s spread worldwide and is causing mass illness and death. Covid-19 has fit that bill for the last two-and-a-half years, having caused at least 6.5 million deaths (and likely closer to 20 million) since its arrival.
But by now, the coronavirus is no longer novel to the vast majority of the world. Most people in the U.S. and many other countries have contracted covid-19 at least once, while newer variants like Omicron have caused large-scale second or even third waves of infection. And though there remains much inequality in global vaccine access, around 70% of the world has gotten at least one covid-19 vaccine dose. A combination of the original vaccine doses, boosters, and infections have given most people strong protection against the worst outcomes of covid-19, even from subsequent encounters with the virus. And as expected, that’s led to progressively weaker waves of mass death over time.
Of course, the road to this “victory” was bumpy. Countries that were the most successful at managing the pandemic in the first year and then vaccinating their residents in the second year have experienced much less death and disruption than others that lagged behind. Millions of people have been saved by the covid-19 vaccines, but in a better and equitable world, millions more would have joined them. A special award should go to the U.S. in particular for having done so little with so much. Despite the country’s vast resources and early access to vaccines, over a million Americans have died from covid, and its mortality rate is far worse than other peer nations and worse than many poorer countries.
Even the numbers in the U.S. today are grim. Averaged out over an entire year, 400 deaths a day would amount to nearly 150,000 deaths annually. That would make covid-19 the deadliest infectious disease in the country by a wide margin over the worst flu seasons in recent history and in the top 10 of the leading causes of death. And that’s assuming that this fall and winter won’t bring along deadlier surges like in the past two years. Death aside, potentially days or weeks of misery caused by a “mild” case are nothing to scoff at. And there are still millions of people worldwide suffering from chronic symptoms instigated by their initial illness.
Future treatments and updated boosters may mitigate the harm of covid-19 further, provided that countries can make them readily available and people are willing to access them. In a decade, we could very well have a universal and highly effective vaccine that can truly protect people from covid-19 the same way that childhood vaccines have made diseases like measles or chickenpox (largely) a thing of the past. There’s no guarantee of that, though, and for now, the coronavirus is still causing too much illness and death to be dismissed as a wholly vanquished public health threat.
The pandemic may be over, but covid-19 isn’t.