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How the Pandemic Ends

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I am not a historian of medicine. But as an environmental historian, I’m familiar enough with this cousin of my field to know the stories they tell well enough. And this interview with various historians of medicine about how the pandemic ends (or perhaps “ends”) seems right to me. Basically, there’s no real end and people just decide to go on and live their lives eventually.

“When people ask, ‘When will this end?,’ they are asking about the social ending,” said Dr. Jeremy Greene, a historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins.

In other words, an end can occur not because a disease has been vanquished but because people grow tired of panic mode and learn to live with a disease. Allan Brandt, a Harvard historian, said something similar was happening with Covid-19: “As we have seen in the debate about opening the economy, many questions about the so-called end are determined not by medical and public health data but by sociopolitical processes.”

Endings “are very, very messy,” said Dora Vargha, a historian at the University of Exeter. “Looking back, we have a weak narrative. For whom does the epidemic end, and who gets to say?”

Like the rest of our response to COVID-19 or to other natural disasters, it is really a question of power, not a question of science. This is followed with a bunch of useful historical examples. Then, the historians come back to COVID-19:

Will that happen with Covid-19?

One possibility, historians say, is that the coronavirus pandemic could end socially before it ends medically. People may grow so tired of the restrictions that they declare the pandemic over, even as the virus continues to smolder in the population and before a vaccine or effective treatment is found.

“I think there is this sort of social psychological issue of exhaustion and frustration,” the Yale historian Naomi Rogers said. “We may be in a moment when people are just saying: ‘That’s enough. I deserve to be able to return to my regular life.’”

It is happening already; in some states, governors have lifted restrictions, allowing hair salons, nail salons and gyms to reopen, in defiance of warnings by public health officials that such steps are premature. As the economic catastrophe wreaked by the lockdowns grows, more and more people may be ready to say “enough.”

“There is this sort of conflict now,” Dr. Rogers said. Public health officials have a medical end in sight, but some members of the public see a social end.

“Who gets to claim the end?” Dr. Rogers said. “If you push back against the notion of its ending, what are you pushing back against? What are you claiming when you say, ‘No, it is not ending.’”

The challenge, Dr. Brandt said, is that there will be no sudden victory. Trying to define the end of the epidemic “will be a long and difficult process.”

It’s going to be ugly. And it’s going to be much more about power, wealth, and psychology than it will about the science.

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