China faces a decision on whether to change policy and live with Covid, or continue to try to block it and live in isolation. Photo: WikiCommons

There is a global social and political revolution brought about by the transformation of Covid from an epidemic to an endemic disease that might be with us for many years.

A year ago, the belief was that we had reached a turning point and soon the pandemic would end because we now have the vaccine. So, we jab everyone, or almost everyone, we achieve herd immunity and life resumes as before or better than before.

Twelve months later, the situation looks very different, the forecast for the future must also change and things are no longer so rosy.

The Covid epidemic is causing millions of new infections a day worldwide, with the most recent variant appearing less lethal but much more virulent than previous ones. In developed countries, which drive the global economy, 20–30% of the population refuses vaccination for ideological reasons.

A group of some serums has proven to be very effective in stopping the severity of the disease, but not the contagion. One can still get sick, but Covid often becomes just like a regular cold if someone is immunized.

The vaccine, however, has shown a collapse in effectiveness after four months, so there is now a real possibility that the population will have to take a booster two to three times a year. What does it mean to protect 40-50 million people three times a year in Italy, for example?

All these elements are clogging and blowing up health care systems around the world, again, like last winter or the winter before, with consequences for ordinary disease care. Nor will herd immunity be achieved, so there is no status quo ante to return to.

The Covid epidemic is not a parenthesis to be opened and closed, but most likely will be a disease the world will have to live with for a long time. In this case, it will change our entire lives.

Facemasks will become semi-permanent and basically we will stop shaking hands, or hugging and kissing as a greeting.

China and the West have developed their own Covid-19 vaccines. Photo: Xinhua

But more structurally, the world will have to learn to live with a virus that will likely continue to mutate. Something like this happened with the discovery of America. In the 16th century, diseases such as the banal flu brought by the Spanish conquistadors exterminated the Amerindian population and the situation normalized only after decades.

Historians now state: “Europeans brought measles, smallpox, influenza and the bubonic plague across the Atlantic, with devastating consequences for the indigenous populations.

“Our new data-driven best estimate is a death toll of 56 million by the beginning of the 1600s – 90% of the pre-Columbian indigenous population and about 10% of the global population at the time.”

Today, modern medicine prevents extermination, but the vaccine does not have a sustainable efficacy in time. Therefore, reasonably, the world needs to prepare health facilities that will permanently deal with Covid for an indefinite period, which could be many years.

Such facilities should be separate from regular health care, to avoid the congestion and short circuits that are multiplying and sending all health care into a tailspin.

But the consequences of living with Covid for years go beyond health care. One immediate problem is travel. If air transport wants to regain a minimum of its past splendor, it must think about special protocols for the disease.

Today, between checks for terrorist attacks and health requests, air travel has become much longer and more annoying. A two- or three-hour flight in Europe requires waiting for five or six hours between departure and arrival for bomb and infection inspections.

In addition, those arriving have the risk of isolation. Weekend vacations are basically over. It is therefore impossible to fly unless strictly necessary. Trains, buses and subways have similar problems and also problems specific to the means in question.

Comparable issues arise for all services: hotels, bars, restaurants, offices, schools, sports meetings. In short, it is a paradigm shift in social life, perhaps for a few years, perhaps permanent.

The whole thing is then a “maybe,” because maybe in a few months it turns out that Covid recedes or that a new vaccine is effective for years. But as of today, that seems highly unlikely. We need to prepare, to be ahead of the curve.

This preparation serves not to stop the economy, which continues to produce, and is done in fact by creating a new industry: Covid prevention and treatment. But it will have to be financed. For now, this is at the expense of the community and of the state, but how long will this be sustainable?

The international consequences are gigantic. A war of containment for Covid over the years must be global, to limit the continuous flow of more or less lethal and more or less vaccine-preventable variants.

Testing and lockdowns are frequent in China. Photo: WikiCommons

The China variant

Moreover, this opens up a nontrivial political and national issue with China, the center of the first Covid outbreak.

The Western world two years ago saw the outbreak as China’s “Chernobyl moment.” That is, just as the 1986 disaster at the Soviet Chernobyl power plant showed the weakness of the system and hastened its demise, so Covid would be for the Chinese Communist Party. But it wasn’t.

A year later, however, China, which had shut itself off by applying draconian preventive measures, had resumed economic normality while the West and the world, which had failed to impose social discipline, was in a state of confusion.

From this, China drew the easy political lesson that its system was better than the liberal and inefficient one of the West.

But if today we are facing an endemic disease, which will last for years, China is faced with drastic political choices. What will it mean over the years to continue to lock down and try to impose an impossible practice of zero contagion?

Xi’an city’s recent drastic lockdown would be unnecessary and hyper-damaging economically and in other ways if, as seems likely, Covid will last many years.

What then to do with foreign travel? Without direct contacts, every deal becomes more difficult, especially if the world has remained open even with all its problems, and China has closed itself off.

If China decides to change its strategy and live with Covid, however, it will not be able to offer total security to its citizens. Its national health structures are much weaker than those of the West, and its vaccines are perhaps even less efficient.

Conversely, ignoring that Covid is endemic is rapidly transforming China into a new North Korea, separated from the world. Such a transformation will be all the more traumatic as it becomes apparent that the rest of the world has instead chosen to live with Covid.

In any case, any choice imposes a delicate and significant political steering in the country, on the eve of the very delicate Party Congress next autumn.

Furthermore, the world that has chosen to live with Covid is not without its problems. The disease is constantly evolving, and there is not the same degree of endemicity in every country.

Nor is there the same degree of vaccination coverage. This aspect was actually already present, for example, with many diseases that are endemic in Africa but not in Europe, such as malaria or yellow fever.

Those differences could be managed because they did not spread easily, and there are very effective vaccines and treatments. The same is not true for Covid, and it will create growing problems for the circulation of the population, which will multiply social and political problems of all kinds.

This story first appeared on the Settimana News website and is republished with permission. To see the original, please click here.

Follow Francesco Sisci on Twitter at @francescosisci