Ending coronavirus pandemic is global game of whack-a-mole, says Atlantic science writer

What will the end of the coronavirus pandemic look like, and what sacrifices are necessary to get there? Ed Yong, the Atlantic’s science writer, has thought a lot about that. He says the U.S. is behind in responding to COVID-19, but it can catch up to stop the spread. 

Two years ago, he spoke to experts who predicted that the next plague was inevitable and America wasn't really ready. 

“And yet, I think the country's underperformance in the face of the COVID-19 catastrophe has been significantly worse than what people had predicted. So I think the main reason for that has been our failure to develop adequate diagnostic tests for the virus in time,” he says.

Four things must absolutely happen – with urgency – to tackle the pandemic now, Yong says.  

One: Protect health care workers. “They are going to be besieged in the next couple of weeks. And they are running out (or have already run out) of masks, gloves, gowns, and other personal protective equipment. America needs to turn its massive manufacturing power towards creating more of those supplies,” he says. 

Two: Make testing widespread. “We need to work out exactly where the virus is and how many people have it, so that places can prepare adequately. All of that will take time.”

Three: Practice social distancing. “To buy the health care system that time and prevent it from being overwhelmed, people need to social distance. They need to keep away from each other to limit the transmission of the virus.” 

Four: The federal government must have coordinated leadership. 

What will the end of the pandemic look like? 

“The more likely scenario is that the US and the world at large is involved in a protracted game of whack-a-mole with the virus, where different states and countries stamp it out, only for it to come back again, and then have to stamp it out all over again until ... a vaccine can be produced,” says Yong.

He expects a vaccine will take 12-18 months to develop, then it has to be manufactured and rolled out.

He adds, “That doesn't mean that we're going to have to stay at home for 12-18 months if we can get past this first wave of the pandemic, which might take a couple of months. … Then we might be able to relax social distancing measures, but in the understanding that we will have to go through this again if there is a resurgence, and there probably will be. So this on-again off-again pattern is going to be part of our lives for a while. And we need to be able to prepare ourselves mentally, socially and societally for that.”

He says future bouts of disruption won’t be as severe as they currently are, but that requires us to get this moment right, and the next weeks are crucial.  

“People, the citizenry at large, and the government in particular need to hold its course right now to avert the worst of the catastrophe, and to allow us time to prepare society for the future bouts,” he says. 

How long do stay-home and social distancing orders need to last? 

Four to six weeks at one end, and three months at the other end. That’s what Yong says Dr. Anthony Fauci – physician, immunologist, and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – told him. 

Could any good come out of this pandemic?

Yong says this won’t be the last pandemic we face, and we need to think about being better prepared for the next one.   

“History suggests that might be unlikely. Certainly when past epidemics and pandemics have hit us, we become panicked. We pay a lot of attention. And then once the crisis is over, we lapse into forgetfulness and complacency. But COVID-19 might be the crisis that breaks that cycle just because it has so thoroughly affected and uprooted the lives of every citizen,” he says. 

Maybe there’s a future where we invest in people who protect us from diseases, and we’ll learn that the world needs to act as one to defeat pandemics, Yong says. 

“I hope that what we'll get at the end is an ethic of global cooperation across … different countries, within communities within those countries. I think we’ll hopefully realize that we’ll need to help each other to get through something like this,” he says.  

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Sarah Sweeney and Michell Eloy