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Once we could talk of nothing else. Now we barely speak of it at all. A leading Chinese epidemiologist has warned that there could be up to 65m cases of Covid-19 a week in his country by the end of June. Yet there appears to be little concern within China, and there is certainly little attention outside it. When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared earlier this month that the Covid pandemic was no longer a global health emergency, the announcement was greeted not with cheers or even muted celebration, but with what seemed to be utter indifference.
To some it may have seemed a statement of the obvious. Vaccines and treatments have made the disease far less dangerous and frightening to most. A disease that claimed millions of lives, ravaged economies and upended societies has become an afterthought – though as the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, pointed out, it is still killing someone every three minutes.
But the silence is also, perhaps, a reflection of the pandemic’s enduring impact. It dominated our lives for so long that for many the instinctive reaction is to try to put it from their minds. For those who lost a loved one, or battled to save lives in ICUs, the subject may be too traumatic to revisit. Some may feel embarrassed to discuss the lingering effects of unemployment, loneliness, or concerns about elderly parents or stressed children, when for others life was even worse. The cost of living crisis, the war in Ukraine and the growing impact of the climate emergency have brought new worries.
To others, this silence can seem uncanny, even incomprehensible. Some are living with the pandemic’s consequences in the most literal sense: on one estimate, 65 million people worldwide have experienced long Covid, though most have recovered. For those who are clinically vulnerable, the abandonment of precautions and lack of discussion of risks may make them feel less safe.
Health systems are struggling to recover. Tens of millions of children have missed routine vaccinations. And economic consequences have played out around the world – bearing out a 2020 IMF analysis which found that social unrest often arrives around a year after pandemics, because of lower economic growth and increased inequality. A World Bank report released this spring warned of the decades-long consequences of reduced human capital. In Bangladesh, for example, toddlers tested on their cognitive and social-emotional development in 2022 lagged far behind those tested pre-pandemic – a decline that the report suggests could translate into a 25% reduction in earnings as adults. The impacts were markedly worse for children from poorer backgrounds. A global literacy survey has shown widespread significant declines in reading levels.
Amid the immense costs, there are perhaps some small gains. While mothers took on a disproportionate share of household labour in the pandemic, there are some signs that it may have encouraged a long-term shift towards greater paternal involvement in caregiving in the UK. Remote working has been a true boon to some employees.
Talking about what went right and wrong matters not only in trying to fix some of the ongoing damage from this pandemic, but also in preparing for the next one. It might allow us to better protect health workers or safeguard vulnerable children, minimise disruption to schooling or find better ways to ensure elderly people don’t lose essential social ties. Covid is still costing us. We should at least heed its lessons.