We’re in the habit of declaring war on our collective challenges. There have been wars on cancer, climate change, and drugs. When we declare war we hope to see our enemy defeated. But the results of our metaphorical wars have generally been disappointing. President Richard Nixon’s 1971 war on cancer produced many effective treatments but, despite the many confident forecasts of imminent victory described in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2010 book The Emperor of All Maladies, cancer remains unvanquished.
Unsurprisingly there have been many declarations of war on Sars-Cov-2. We now understand that we can’t eradicate the virus, much in the way that we have come to understand that we can’t eradicate cancer. An Aotearoa that finds itself in a forever war against the virus is an Aotearoa that never gets to move on. What are the victory conditions for our war on Covid-19?
Many of the signs of the successful conclusion of our war on Covid-19 don’t lie in the biochemistry of Sars-Cov-2 or our vaccines. They are in our minds.
The kiss in Times Square
When I think of the ends of wars I think of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photograph of a sailor kissing a dental assistant in Times Square when VJ Day was announced on 14 August 1945. That symbolises the end of World War II for me, even more than photographs of Japanese or German leaders signing instruments of surrender.
We’ve since learned things about that famous photograph that make it morally problematic. Greta Friedman, the dental assistant who was the kiss’s recipient, made it clear that there was nothing consensual about it. But it was recognition that life could get back to normal and that the war’s death and destruction had come to an end. It would be wrong to suggest that we should mark the end of the metaphorical war on Covid-19 with spontaneous non-consensual kissing of strangers. But we need other changes in the way we think about the virus that recognise that we are ready to step down from our collective war footing.
We will know we are ready to move on when Covid-19 becomes a page 10 story. We will know our war against Covid-19 is over when we get occasional bulletins about infection and death from the virus much as we do about deaths from seasonal influenza and the road toll.
We will know we are ready to move on when we can get colds again and find them just annoying. Before the pandemic, people who complained too much about having a cold were mocked. Now we view cold symptoms as potential harbingers of Covid. Perhaps the comparative mildness of the Omicron variant in the majority of people suggests a future in which, with the help of our vaccines, Covid-19 becomes just another annoying cold virus.
We will know we are ready to move on when we stop obsessively reading about Covid’s effects. One of the benefits of the pandemic has been the scientific education of many New Zealanders. I’ve suggested that this new attention to science is good news for progress against climate change. But there are dangers in overthinking the science of Covid. Here’s a story on shrinkage of the brain resulting from mild or moderate cases of Covid. If occasional infection with Covid-19 is part of the new normal then perhaps we need to view that effect on the brain as we view the effects of moderate consumption of alcohol. If you are happy with a couple of after-dinner pinots, then perhaps you shouldn’t worry so much about the effects of a mild Covid infection.
We will know we are ready to move on when we can sit next to strangers in a cinema and not be concerned they might sneeze on us. Or when a new acquaintance offers us their hand and we don’t reflexively recoil.