Analysis & Opinions - The Atlantic

The Pandemic Is Ending With a Whimper

| Nov. 24, 2021

The decision to move on to the recovery phase needs to be made by politicians, not scientists.

Perhaps you've figured this out already: The pandemic will not have a discrete end. The coronavirus will not raise a white flag. There will be no peace treaty, no parade, no announcement from the CDC that the United States is done worrying about COVID. You will not get closure. The signs remain too mixed. The virus continues to spread, even as widening vaccine eligibility, booster shots, and improved medical treatments limit the damage the virus can do. The death rate has been declining since late September, but more than 1,000 Americans have perished each day for most of the past two weeks. A minority of Americans are still acting irresponsibly; a smattering of people would even prefer to lose their job than take a free, lifesaving vaccine.

But America remains in limbo for another reason: The Biden administration has yet to come out and say that the emergency is ending. To even contemplate it seems disrespectful to the nearly 800,000 dead. The Delta variant and vaccine resistance scuttled President Joe Biden's hopes of declaring a "summer of joy" this past Fourth of July. Yet even though the threat still exists, the country needs to be nudged into the recovery phase—and only elected leaders can provide that nudge.

Biden and his party pledged to "follow the science" in dealing with the coronavirus. Their embrace of professionalism was a point of distinction between them and former President Donald Trump, who in the early days of the pandemic denied the seriousness of the viral threat and refused to help states acquire essential supplies.

Yet the question of when a crisis is over isn’t an objective matter that Anthony Fauci or any other scientific expert can decide. What is an acceptable trade-off between preventing infections and promoting the resumption of pre-pandemic routines? Should employers and school districts base their policies on the expectations of the most risk-averse people or those who have a higher tolerance?

Meanwhile, the perception that the emergency has not ended, and perhaps will never end, has consequences too. Some Americans who are acting cautiously—for instance, by routinely masking outdoors, even after being vaccinated—seem more worried than they should be. In areas with high vaccination rates, schools that extend mask mandates longer than necessary or reinstate rigid socializing rules after a few positive tests risk damaging students' education with marginal benefit to public health....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“The Pandemic Is Ending With a Whimper.” The Atlantic, November 24, 2021.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem Headshot