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Pandemics end when people no longer care


As predicted, the Omicron variant has swept through the USA with tremendous rapidity, and is now largely over. Official cases peaked at around 820,000 per day five weeks ago, and will be under 100,000 this week. Death totals, which naturally lag infection totals by two to three weeks, peaked at around 2,600 per day and are now down to 1,800 (these are all seven-day moving averages), and will be down to “just” a few hundred per day again in a couple of weeks.

Here in very blue, very health-obsessed Boulder, Colorado, the mood has shifted perceptibly in just the last week or so. Last night I picked up some takeout at a mildly fashionable New Mexican restaurant (we haven’t eaten at a sit-down restaurant for 23 months and nine days now, not that I’m counting) and literally no one in the place, which was packed, was wearing a mask except for the waitstaff.

It’s been said that pandemics end as a social rather than an epidemiological matter when people stop caring about them, and I very much get the sense that this process is now in full swing all over the United States. Omicron — a radically infectious variant of the virus – appeared two months ago. Despite the shrieks of the perpetually paranoid right wing about their precious Freedoms, basically nothing anywhere closed down, or even altered much.

The wave came and is now receding, 120,000 Americans have died from COVID in just the past eight weeks, and life goes on as before.

This is the new COVID normal, and, unless some really horrendous variant appears that drives daily death totals into the five figure range, I suspect that this is where we’re going to stay as long as this thing is around, which of course will be forever in some form or another (the Spanish flu is still around 100 years later, although it was rendered largely innocuous over that very long run, so well aphorized by J.M. Keynes).

In other words, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we see several hundred thousand COVID deaths in the USA this year, and then next year, and maybe even the year after that, but it won’t really be much of a story any more. A few people, especially immunocompromised people (of which there are several million in this country) will continue to take old-style precautions, the non-cultists will continue to get booster vaccines, probably a couple of times a year, and that will be that.

I forget in which Tolstoy novel the omniscient narrator notes that a man gets used to anything eventually.

It’s true.

ETA: The quote I was thinking of is actually more apt than my half-remembered paraphrase of it:

“There are no conditions to which a person cannot grow accustomed, especially if he sees that everyone around him lives in the same way.”

Anna Karenina

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