COVID will never go away; here’s how we live with it

While many Canadians have returned to something resembling pre-pandemic life, much has changed for the long term. 

Certain restrictions on larger gatherings are still in place, most public places still require masks, many white-collar workers have yet to return to their offices, and international travellers still face a battery checks and limitations. Despite this, and the fact that Canada has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, case counts are now creeping back up thanks to the more contagious Delta variant. 

In other words, the pandemic isn’t over, but Canada seems to be entering the final stages (which is sadly not the case in many developing countries). But critically, it doesn’t mean the virus will disappear, as we all once hoped. “(It) will almost certainly be a permanent part of our lives,” wrote Ed Yong, an Atlantic writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for his pandemic coverage.

To understand how we’re going to live with it, there are four points to keep in mind. 

COVID is a vaccine-preventable illness

In both Canada and the United States, we are beginning to see two different sides of the pandemic emerging—that of the vaccinated, and of the unvaccinated. Right now, the majority of cases are among unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people, and for those in hospital or dying from the illness, it’s an even greater majority.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, just 0.03% of full vaccinated Canadians have contracted COVID. According to U.S. data, the risk of hospitalization and death can be as much as 448 times higher for unvaccinated people. Recent evidence also suggests vaccines also limit transmissibility the virus, even if you are exposed to it.

Although the number of breakthrough infections may seem higher (if you vaccinate millions of people, even <1% is still hundreds of thousands of cases) vaccines are your absolute best chance avoiding COVID.

But vaccines won’t fix everything right away

Not everyone is eligible for vaccination, and while the vaccines dramatically decrease risk, they don’t eliminate it.

Higher vaccination rates mean less virus in the community and that matters for the risk calculus. In the extreme, if community transmission is high enough, the odds of a vaccinated person becoming infected and passing it on can exceed than an unvaccinated person in a community where the infection rates are very, very low (even if the vaccinated person is unlikely to get very sick themselves).

This makes other precautions like improved ventilation, masking, and distancing necessary to slow the spread to protect those who can’t—or won’t—be vaccinated.

Plus, many of these measures, like new sick leave policies, improved ventilation, and more rigorous hand hygiene, will benefit our wellbeing in ways that extend beyond the end of the pandemic.

Individual health and population health are linked—but they aren’t the same

“If any Canadian can now get a vaccine, why are we still dealing with restrictions if the risk to vaccinated people is virtually nil?” you may ask. “If ‘anti-vaxxers’ don’t care about their own risk, why should I?”

It’s a common objection but it’s flawed for a few reasons. First, it assumes most people who aren’t vaccinated have a choice or are making their choices for selfish reasons. This isn’t always the case. “Anti-vaxxers”, the belligerent and very vocal opponents of vaccines, only make up a small portion of those who remain unvaccinated. The rest shouldn’t have to forfeit their protections.

Second, we follow all kinds of rules all the time because we understand that broader buy-in is necessary for those rules to work. Tara Kirk Sell, a researcher who studies risk communication at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the Atlantic’s Amanda Mull that when she goes kayaking she wears a life jacket. Kirk Sell also happens to be an Olympic-medalist swimmer who once held the world record in the 100-meter breaststroke. “There are few people on Earth at less personal risk from tipping out of a kayak,” Mull wrote. She wears a life jacket anyways.

It’s fair to question when rules may need to be adjusted, but our own personal risk is not necessarily where you’ll find the answers.

COVID will eventually become “just the flu”

It’s beyond dispute: COVID-19 is more dangerous than the flu. In fact, saying “it’s just the flu” has become a kind of calling card to signal mistrust of medical and scientific authorities.

Despite bringing society to a screeching halt, the mortality and hospitalization rates all confirm that COVID has been devastating in a way that flu never has. That’s not only because the disease itself is different, it’s also because it met immune systems that had never dealt with it before.

Once enough people have built up some immunity to this virus—through either vaccination or infection (and at some point, that will be all of us)—the pandemic will end and the “endemic” of this coronavirus will begin. “It won’t upend our lives anymore,” wrote Sarah Zhang.

Viruses are constantly mutating. The most successful mutations are ones that spread more effectively. The ones that spread more effectively are usually the ones that are less likely to kill their hosts. (Though not always; Delta, the current most contagious variant doesn’t appear to be significantly less severe than previous strains of COVID, and the possibility of a mutation that evades our natural or vaccine-induced immunity and is more lethal keeps many infectious disease experts up at night.)

Once we finally reach the endemic stage, not only will infections become less severe, but the attendant psychological concerns will diminish as well. “A COVID-19 diagnosis becomes as routine as diagnosis of strep or flu—not good news, but not a reason for particular fear or worry or embarrassment either,” Zhang wrote. 

At Ethisan, we’re answering your pandemic-related questions about vaccines, the virus, and hand hygiene. Our sanitizers are made from seven ingredients or fewer and are plant-based, eco-friendly and Canadian made. Browse our products to learn more.