We often hear that we are living in a “post-pandemic world”. Three years on from the fear and uncertainty unleashed by a mysterious new respiratory disease, many news stories use “post-pandemic” or “post-Covid” as an adjective when describing tourist numbers or financial results. This is understandable, but not entirely accurate. As the World Health Organisation monitors Eris, a new variant of the Covid-19 coronavirus that is spreading globally, it may be more correct to say that we must adjust to living in a world punctuated by pandemics – as one disease recedes it is only a matter of time until an adapted virus or an entirely new ailment takes its place.
But we are in a very different place from the dark days of 2020. The urgency that turbocharged research into life-saving vaccines, the public-health lessons that were learnt and the myriad adaptations and policy changes that governments and businesses made to weather the storm mean that, for now, the world is more prepared for the lingering menace that Covid-19 still possesses. However, this bank of accumulated knowledge still needs to be supplemented by vigilance. Complacency cannot be tolerated in an interconnected world where, courtesy of resurgent air travel, a virus can spread across the Earth in a matter of days.
With the emergence of Eris, and some doctors in the UAE describing a surge in flu-like cases as people return from summer holidays overseas, it is important to remember that contagious diseases have not left the stage, no matter how welcome the idea of "normality" may be. Medical advice to isolate and not travel for several days if one feels unwell is still sound. Children, the elderly and those with poor health are still vulnerable to infection, and the fact that people in countries with extreme heat generally spend more time indoors during the summer only exacerbates the risk of passing on a virus.
It is true that a lot a measures and precautions have been relaxed. Three years ago, for example, case numbers were a daily talking point, but in May – when it ended its Covid-19 health emergency – the US announced that it was no longer tracking these figures. In the UAE, life returned to normal this year, far removed from the days when a negative PCR test was needed to go to offices, malls or cinemas.
But there are sobering facts to consider along with this welcome change. In June, the WHO’s director for Europe said about 36 million people on the continent may have experienced health problems related to long Covid, a disease Hans Kluge described as “a complex condition [that] we still know very little about”. And last month, a report from the Chronic Poverty Advisory Network, a network of researchers, policy makers and practitioners across 17 low and middle-income countries, found that the effects of Covid-19 could hurt the world's poorest for more than 10 years owing to the global response that affected jobs, health care and education.
There are still steps we can take as a global community to deal with the threat of widespread, contagious illnesses. General measures to deal with colds and flus, from wearing masks to frequent hand-washing, are still needed. Writing in The National last week, Dr Tom Frieden, former director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, put forward three priorities to focus on: public health infrastructure; primary health care; and building resilient communities of healthy individuals. Technology too, is always advancing in this field – last month, Washington University in the US said its researchers were working on a device that uses aerosol sampling technology and an ultrasensitive biosensing technique to test the air for Covid-19 particles, returning a result in about five minutes.
There may not be a truly “post-pandemic” world, but maintaining a watchful yet realistic attitude when confronted by new viruses or diseases will help us live healthier, and less anxious lives.