It stops the spread. Well, not really. It confers lasting immunity—but you may need a booster shot in six months. It makes Covid a mild disease. Not necessarily. It means the masks can come off—though not according to the US Centers for Disease Control’s most recent guidelines. In short, the vaccine changes everything and nothing. Meet Schrödinger’s vaccine.
The Covid-19 vaccines work remarkably well, better than anyone expected, but they can’t be trusted to do their job in an open, unmasked world. Not unless 70 percent of people get them. Or 85 percent. Or 95 percent, including children. At the very least they prevent serious disease, even in people who have caught the variant du jour. But do they?
The Covid vaccines were delivered to us as a quid pro quo: take this potion to get your life back. Despite a low rumble of vaccine hesitancy—a predictable and unavoidable scenario in pluralistic societies—the majority of people have happily offered their arms to the elixir. And yet in most parts of the world, policymakers are showing a stubborn reluctance to loosen their grip on restrictions.
At this point, the über-cautious among us will point out that the pandemic still hasn’t completed its arc.
But excessive caution carries a high price tag, just as recklessness does. Never mind the economic costs: think of the human ones alone: missed goodbyes with dying relatives; missed windows for fertility treatments; missed encounters; missed relationships; jobs lost and jobs that will never materialize because the sector no longer exists. The more these misses accrue, the more colour and meaning gets drained from life—and in some cases, like missed cancer diagnoses, life itself hangs in the balance.
By and large, the young and the poor are bearing the brunt of these losses. In their ardour to keep Covid numbers in check, policymakers have not taken this sufficiently into account. As the UK’s Time For Recovery Campaign has argued, “Our children will have to live for decades with the consequences of current policies: how many will be condemned to live in poverty as a result? We’ve mortgaged their future.”
Political leaders have begun to admit that the future course of the pandemic isn’t fully in our hands. Michael Osterholm, Joe Biden’s former Covid-19 advisor, has stated that “these surges have little to do with what humans do … we’re not in nearly as much control as we think are.”
“The bad news is that Covid-19 may never go away,” argue Gan Kim Yong, Lawrence Wong and Ong Ye Kung of Singapore: “The good news is that it is possible to live normally with it in our midst.” Even Australia, that bastion of Covid absolutism, shows signs of softening its stance. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has recently stated that “we will live with this virus, as we live with other infectious diseases.” Many scientists agree: in a February 2021 survey of over 100 immunologists, virologists and public health specialists working on Covid-19, almost 90 percent of respondents stated that they expected the virus to become endemic. Vaccine or no vaccine, Covid will linger, like so many other coronaviruses.
The Covid vaccines won’t banish all residual risk from Covid. And unless we jab people at gunpoint, vaccine uptake will never achieve perfection, either. But the vaccines perform well enough for all but the most exigent. They’re an A minus. They’re good enough to bring Covid risks down to more manageable levels: bronchitis-and-flu levels, driving-a-car levels, giving-birth levels, wilderness-trekking levels. Before Covid, we routinely accepted such risks in return for a self-determined and three-dimensional life. We can relearn to accept them.
The vaccines are the best weapon we’ve got, so if we don’t accept their imperfections we’ll have nothing left in our toolbox except indefinite restrictions.
The losses that flow from these restrictions compound over time. Most people can withstand limitations on social communion for a few weeks or months, but not for a few years. Most people can find substitutes for exploring the world or directing a community theatre production for a time, but not forever. Most people have enough savings (or friends with sofas) to make it to the end of the month, but not to the next decade. Our young people, whose lives have been freeze-framed at a crucial juncture, need to resume their normal lives. And we need politicians with the courage to draw a line in the sand.