OPINION-The long 2020

As a tough 2020 was ending, it was palpable in many people an understandable longing for the return of better days. Not that one could expect the mere change of date to bring instant relief, but there was hope, at least, that 2021 would restore some routine that could pass for normalcy. 

Some of that hopefulness receded meanwhile. Changes in the pandemic dynamics, widespread concern, when not alarmism, with ill-defined or often misinterpreted data, and institutional stress and inertia suggest we are in for a longer than expected 2020. Unfortunately, it is becoming clear that the second coming of a SARS will not end abruptly as it was the case of the first one. The current epidemic keeps spreading and leaves virtually no land untouched. Further, it is evolving, presenting already a couple of variants. 

All types of approaches appear to have been tried and tested all around the world. They provided some respite for health systems, but no magic ‘solution’ has yet been devised. Results have been at least confusing, and success does not seem guaranteed anywhere. Where better and more sustained results were achieved, a combination of prompt action and sustained monitoring, but also specific local conditions and the proverbial luck came into a combination not easily replicable everywhere.

Much hope is put on vaccination, evidently a foremost tool to contain the virus. Lots of resources were brought forward to make the fastest ever vaccines for a new disease. Building on research previously made for related viruses, new technologies, and large financial commitments, it is an outstanding and crucial success that must be recognized.

Uncertainties persist, however. To reach this point, high risks were incurred by ‘short-cutting’ research, production, and testing stages. Virus mutations add to the uncertainty. The long-term efficacy of the vaccines already available or in development will be tested in ‘real-time.’ 

It is possible but unlikely to eradicate the virus. Henceforth, it is not enough, or even sustainable, to focus health policies exclusively on keeping the disease at bay until a savior vaccine or therapy arrives. Such an approach alone would be likely to fail and leave behind enormous long-term health and social and economic costs. We must learn how to live with a new pathogen and treat those affected, as we did with others in the past. And then, with much fewer material resources and knowledge – which gives us a motive for optimism after all.