The COVID-19 virus has been the one thing on everyone's minds since the start of 2020, as what seemed like an isolated incident quickly spiralled into a global disaster, infecting—at the time of this writing, March 31, 2020—close to a million people.
It's physically impossible to go to any reputable news source and not be bombarded with anxiety-inducing headlines about the latest infection numbers and the death tolls.
The question has probably crossed your mind: Isn't there more we can do?
How and when is this nightmare likely to end?
Well, based on the opinions of the world's leading experts, we hope to provide you with some of those answers to those questions today.
Science writer Ed Yong, who wrote an article over two years ago explaining why a global pandemic was basically unavoidable, has said that there are three potential ways the pandemic can come to an end: the unlikely way, the dangerous way, and the long way.
Yong posits that the unlikely way would involve all the world's nations suddenly cleaning up their act, and simultaneously getting their viral situations under control through a mix of strong quarantine measures and mass-testing rollouts, much like the 2003 SARS outbreak.
Considering how far the situation has escalated already, and the poor job many major world powers have done in both preparing for and then controlling the spread of, this particular scenario feels more like a pipe dream than a viable choice.
Take the U.S., one of the most developed and prosperous nations in the world, which has become the global epicentre for the pandemic.
All predictive models created prior to the actual pandemic took it as a given that the U.S. would quickly create and widely distribute an effective viral test, which is the foundation of any successful pandemic response.
-The U.S. hasn't done that testing and as of today, doesn't look to have a plan in place for making tests available to a large segment of the population. -[Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.]
While Italy and Spain have been ravaged by COVID-19, for the U.S., the worst is yet to come.
The U.S. has a much higher population than Italy, but fewer hospital beds per capita.
Many models predict that deaths and infections will peak in April, possibly overloading the health care system, but this model relies on the assumption that all Americans will be observing quarantine or social distancing measures.
At the time of this writing, President Trump has not ordered a national quarantine, and many U.S. citizens still aren't taking the social distancing measures seriously.
In other words, things seem bad now, but an even worse disaster is coming down the track.
The second possibility for how the COVID-19 pandemic might end is also the fastest, but it will also come with some pretty horrific costs.
You may have heard the term "herd immunity" thrown around lately.
This refers to allowing the infection to spread, either intentionally or not, with the assumption that those who recover will develop the proper antibodies to fight off the virus and become immune, protecting the overall population.
This is essentially the epidemiological equivalent of allowing a fire to burn itself out.
The problem with this kind of approach is that allowing a fire to burn itself out will often leave the world with little left to burn.
If this approach was taken—as the UK government initially intended to do—millions would die in the U.S. alone, with tens of millions worldwide.
The third scenario is the most realistic, and will cause the least collateral damage to human life, but it will also mean it'll be far longer before society as we know it will return to normal.
The general idea is that we will have to continue keeping up social distancing and quarantine measures, putting greater focus on areas where outbreaks flare up, until an effective vaccine can be developed.
It'll basically be like treating the outbreak as a whole the same way as one would treat a single case of COVID-19: treating the condition symptomatically while the immune system fights off the disease.
While this may seem straightforward on paper, it's actually quite an intense process.
Not only will infections continue to occur across the globe during this elongated period, many vulnerable people will die as a result.
Sadly, the fact that more people will die as a result of COVID-19 is inevitable at this point.
The key at this stage is minimizing how many of those deaths occur.
The actual creation of the vaccine will also take quite some time—when factoring in testing, development, and distribution, to get full coverage it will likely take from a year to 18 months.
During that time, it's likely that the world economy will take a considerable hit as a result of increased consumer caution under social distancing measures.
Goldman Sachs recently forecasted that there would be a 6.2 percent decline in U.S. GDP as a result of the outbreak, the biggest drop since the Great Depression.
Experts state that this won't mean two years of continuous lockdown—it'll be more like several burst-like periods of social distancing. [Happy anniversary, honey!]
The legacy of COVID-19 is likely to linger over the world for years to come, with millions of people losing friends and family members as a result of the disease, though the legacy will be considerably less morbid under this method than under an attempt at herd immunity.
Just when and how exactly COVID-19 will end though, depends on two factors scientists don't fully understand just yet: the virus's seasonality and duration of the immunity.
Many viruses, such as the flu and common cold, are seasonal, meaning they have a tendency to abate during the summer months.
Whether or not the same applies to COVID-19 will make a huge difference.
The same can be said for duration of the immunity, meaning how long a person retains the antibodies for natural immunity after first being infected.
Because the seasonal flu and common cold mutate so frequently, the duration of immunity is relatively low, typically less than a year.
The SARS coronavirus of 2003, which was more severe and deadly, had a considerably longer duration of immunity.
If we as a species are lucky, COVID-19 will have a duration of immunity more like SARS than the common cold, but for now, we can only wait for scientists to develop the appropriate data.
In the end, the COVID-19 virus will only be defeated by outlasting it and attempting to minimize the damage it can do to people and society in the meantime.
-There's no magic silver bullet to solve this situation, only conscientious and responsible personal choices, mixed with sensible government policy and vaccine development. -[There's no magic cure for this, we need to be wise and responsible.]
When the COVID-19 problem finally subsides, most likely in either late 2021 or early 2022, we'll probably have to deal with a barrage of secondary problems, from a shattered or transformed economy to an international pandemic of mental health disorders like PTSD.
But for now, while solutions are still being developed by the world governments, it's probably smartest for you to focus on keeping yourself safe.
Remember: To keep you and others safe from COVID-19, your best bet is to socially isolate yourself and maintain good hygiene. [I'm doing what I can to keep myself and my loved ones safe—what about you?]
The rest, we're sad to admit, is out of your hands.
Want to remain informed about all things pandemic?
Go check out United States' Plan for a Pandemic and What If Ebola Infected the Whole World?