Future Tense

How the Pandemic Will End

Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

A small pink flower and grass peek out of snow.
A promising sign Christof Stache/Getty Images

A version of this article first appeared in Emily Oster’s newsletter, ParentData.

The first winter I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, it snowed a huge amount. There were multiple storms that dropped more than a foot of snow. For my birthday, in February, my husband and I went to Boston and walked around the North End, through passageways made in snow drifts that towered above our heads.

After every snowstorm, it would first be eerily silent, and then plows would clear a bit of a path. But they were not very effective. For most of the winter, every road we drove on was down to a single lane.

Advertisement

And then slowly, slowly, it melted. Roads became two lanes again, we rediscovered toys lost in the snow. Boston had stored some of their excess snow in giant piles in parking lots, where the last of it melted only in July.

Advertisement
Advertisement

This is how the pandemic will end, too. It will end slowly. In drips. We will not awaken one morning to find large indoor singing events back on everywhere. We will not find ourselves all burning our masks in a bonfire on the first day of vaccination. (After all, the first vaccines have been administered in the U.K. already and the pandemic is still on there.)

Part of this is because vaccination will not be immediate. Yes, approval this week will probably mean the first vaccines before Christmas. But widespread vaccination will take time, and it’s a bit unpredictable. Barring distribution disruptions (a very real possibility), we could have enough vaccine for 20 million people to be vaccinated by the end of the year.  Perhaps another 40 million in January. Most of these will be health care workers and elderly people, starting with those in nursing homes.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Younger adults will be later. Kids will be later, and for children younger than 12 the vaccine hasn’t even undergone safety trials yet. The New York Times Vaccine Line told me I was behind 267 million other people, although this is based on a plan in which kids go before prime age adults, which is just one suggestion. If we think we need 60 percent or 70 percent of people vaccinated to achieve some kind of herd immunity, then it won’t be achieved in January, that’s for sure. Nor will it happen all at once on some date.

Instead, the availability of vaccine will bring on the slow melt. We can expect less spread as more people are vaccinated. (Even if their vaccination does not protect others, which is an open question, vaccinated people will at least be less likely to be sick.) And less spread means COVID-19 numbers will drop—gradually, but the curve will go down. We don’t have to wait for eradication for things to go back to normal. In many places, reopening metrics are linked to community spread levels. If there is less COVID-19 in the community with 30 percent of the population vaccinated than zero vaccinated, which we have every reason to expect, then more restaurants, bars and, perhaps, schools will be open, and it will be safer for even unvaccinated people to be in them.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

If you had to ask me to look into my crystal ball, I think the summer will look more normal.  This will be both because of actual improvements in safety and because of policy pressure to continue to reopen. Maybe some travel again. More camps for kids (even though kids are unlikely to have been vaccinated, a lot of camps operated successfully last summer so I’m guessing this will spur them on). More of us will be back in our offices for longer periods of time, if we want. But I don’t think we’ll see large scale music festivals or huge parades (I might be wrong!) quite yet.

The slow melt goes beyond the vaccine issues, though. It’s going to take us time to return to where we were before, emotionally. I cannot be the only one who sees people hugging on TV and is like What are you doing?!!?!?! STOP THAT!!! One of my kids told me the other day that when they are around people who are not their family without their mask, they “feel naked.” I suspect those of us who wear masks religiously will be wearing them in grocery stores for a long while, even as the mandates to do so fade.

Advertisement

It has been a scary, weird, isolating time. It still is. The steps out will be baby ones. And, of course, on the other side not everything will go back to the way it was. We’ll probably have more Zoom meetings in lieu of travel. Although I hope to do some of my August book tour in person, I suspect I’ll get a chance to Zoom some of it, too. Working remotely will probably stay common. And I predict that we’ll see way more masking in general, especially during flu season.

Everyone knows this winter is going to be hard—cases are rising, the sun sets early, we’re missing out on holiday joy. But I think some of at least my stress is the continued feelings of uncertainty. The end is “in sight” but, like, where? I think this is part of what makes it hard to continue vigilance, and also to just exist. At least for me, recognizing that it will not appear all at once like some kind of jack-in-the-box is helpful. But also recognizing that two months from now things probably will look somewhat better is helpful, too. And things will look even better two months after that.

Hang in there, people. The end of the pandemic may be far off, but the beginning of the end is near.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Advertisement