The Long 2020: year of the COVID-19 Pandemic

According to historians the long 19th Century lasted 125 years. It started in 1789 with the French Revolution and ran through until the beginning of World War One in 1914. The 20th Century was, however, short. Closing with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 it lasted a mere 77 years. What this suggests is that whilst our calendars reflect the orderly nature of celestial revolutions, human events are not so neat. More often than not, true significance attaches to periods, and not units, of time.

This is likely to be true of 2020. Whilst it is apparently a unit of time, the year of COVID-19 is, in fact, a period of time. The long 2020 began with the first symptomatic patients, which have been traced to the start of December 2019. Indeed, this is why it is called COVID-19 and not COVID-20. As a result, and despite writing merely hours from the advent of 2021, one can still ask: what event will mark the end of the long 2020?

Of course, the day that the pandemic ends is the obvious choice. However, whilst the pandemic will eventually end, it is unrealistic to think that this will mean that COVID-19 will no longer trouble us. Although there are facts about the presence or absence of the virus SARS-COV-2 in a particular population, such facts alone do not determine the presence or absence of a pandemic. There is very little of the virus in Australia, and yet we are also living through the pandemic and the long 2020 alongside those in countries with far higher rates of infection. Thus, a certain kind of significance must attach to the virus if we are to declare a pandemic and the same applies if we are to declare its end.

It is clear that SARS-COV-2 is not now going to be something we can eliminate from the world. The global elimination of a virus has been achieved only once, in the case of smallpox, and although we are presently a hair’s breadth from bringing an end to polio, it has involved more than three decades of effort by the WHO. Nevertheless, the pandemic’s end is on the horizon. So far two vaccines have been approved, at least in the UK, and a number of countries have begun their immunisation programmes. Indeed, Israel has already vaccinated an astounding 10% of their citizens. More so than in other nations, perhaps the long 2020 is closest to being over in countries like Israel, the UK and the USA. Nevertheless, it is not yet over and the long 2020 will drag on until the pandemic official ends.

Whilst we need to start thinking about the end of the pandemic in both global and national terms, it is likely that the global declaration is some way off. The long 2020 will be brought to a close by nation states and accumulating groups of nation states. Once we begin to return to normal, once we collectively begin to consider the pandemic ended within certain borders, the long 2020 can be considered over. Of course, we may never go back to life exactly as it was before the pandemic. There is also no doubt that SARS-COV-2 will continue to spread, and that people will continue to be diagnosed with COVID-19. However, as a population begins to be vaccinated, the spread of the virus should slow, the numbers contracting the illness should diminish, and the symptoms experienced by individuals should no longer be life threatening.

Of course, for the vast majority of the world’s population COVID-19 has never been life threatening; it is a disease that disproportionately affects older people, those with certain co-morbidities and populations that experience significant health inequalities. It is to the credit of those countries that have sought to effectively manage the pandemic that they have done so in the interests of the most vulnerable in their societies. It is also why members of these particular groups are being prioritised for vaccination, alongside healthcare professionals whose occupations places them at high(er) risk of infection. It is in this context that we should begin to think about calling an end to the pandemic. Must we wait for the entire world to be inoculated or is it sufficient to have inoculated those who are at particular risk 

These are the issues we should now be thinking about. At what point should we begin to lift restrictions and allow emergence legislation to lapse? At what point to we start to regulate for non-pandemic times? Ironically, it is the countries that have been most successful at preventing the spread of SARS-COV-2 who will likely find this the most difficult. Having kept it out, and controlled and contained for so long, it seems hard to accept that at a certain point, the virus will inevitably spread around places life Australia and New Zealand. But this is what will happen. Nevertheless, we cannot maintain a state of pandemic emergency in perpetuity and, given proper planning and preparation, we need not wait until the entire population have been vaccinated. The effects of the pandemic will no doubt be felt a decade from now, but it should not be that long before we can declare 2020, the year of COVID-19, finally over.