Nine eleven (9/11) is a date that is etched permanently in the minds of billions – it was when the Twin Towers in New York were attacked killing 3400 people in 2001. But how many will associate 3/11/2020 (American Date) as the day the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a pandemic which has killed six million and possibly many more than that. For most, the word pandemic was new, something more serious than an epidemic. Looking back the numbers on the 3/11/2020 seem very small, only 118,000 cases, 4,291 deaths spread over 113 countries.
And yet, it was so terrifying, that a pandemic was declared. It was the rate of increase of cases, the scale of the contagion, the high probability of serious illness and the lack of any vaccine and treatment, that gave cause for concern.
The pandemic announcement led to dramatic changes in international travel, closing down entire countries or regions, prohibition of movement, social distancing, keeping at least two metres apart and, of course, mask wearing. Hand sanitisers appeared everywhere – it was as if a pandemic industry had sprung up out of nowhere. The pandemic shut down clubs, bars, and restaurants, forbade gatherings and even stopped folks attending the funerals. Health services were stretched beyond their limits too with insufficient beds and ICU places, oxygen in bottles became a hot commodity.
Fortunately, science came to the rescue, on December 8th, 2020, the first vaccination was given to a 91-year-old woman in the UK. The incredibly fast development of vaccines was unprecedented, clinical trials had taken place for only four months, but data suggested that it was safe for use. Since then, 11 billion doses have been administered in every country and over 5 billion have been fully vaccinated. The global vaccination program was and still is skewed heavily in favour of richer developed countries where almost all of the population have been vaccinated. The term vaccine nationalism exactly described the selfishness of many countries. Africa lags behind with a vaccination rate of but is fortunately catching up. Botswana Government has done well after a slow start frustrated by vaccination nationalism but currently has a vaccination rate of circa 65/100 persons.
During the two-year period of the pandemic, corona virus has mutated thousands of times and few of these variants have been of concern. The WHO even named them after the Greek alphabet. Omicron swept through the world like a cyclone and quickly became the dominant strain though not as life threatening as the previous variant of concern – Delta – which was more dangerous and claimed many lives. Recently another new one has been discovered in France which is dubbed Deltacron because it shows signs of being like Omicron and Delta. Deltacron is approximately 1.4 times more infectious than the original Omicron strain BA.1 making similar to measles which is reckoned to be the most infectious disease. But the good news is that case numbers of Deltacron are falling.
Currently infections remain very high though they appear to be falling. There are 2 million new cases and 7,500 deaths each day. In mid-January there was 4.5 million new cases and over 10,000 deaths each day. Yet given this high number of cases there is optimism that the worst is over. Many countries are removing restrictions and are understandably eager to return to normalcy. So, the question then that hangs in the air like a heavy cloud is what are the conditions that would end the pandemic? Current COVID-19 cases and deaths are twenty times what they were when the pandemic was called by the WHO. But this week this organisation, on the second anniversary of the pandemic, the WHO has started to discuss exactly what should be the criteria for calling an end to the pandemic. The international organisation made it clear that it is not considering calling an end to the Pandemic as the numbers are still far too high but what the criteria should be.
One of the criteria is the level of immunity in the population, but that is a long way off for some countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo where the vaccination rate remains at less the one percent. And given the universality of the disease it is unlikely that the pandemic would be called off unless at least two thirds of nations have fully – at least 90% – vaccinated their populations or have acquired natural immunity through having had the disease.
Most experts believe that COVID-19 will become endemic and will never leave us. This being the case, we will simply have to boost our immunity through periodic vaccinations or – as is hoped – using new oral vaccines that are in the advanced stages of development. It is likely that the end of the pandemic will be an anti-climax there will be no fanfare or street parties even though a ‘world war’ will have been won. More likely that individual countries will lift all restrictions one by one. This will be a pity because we deserve to pat ourselves on our backs.