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Mutation in the Pandemic

The Signal
Carry On
What’s happening with public attitudes toward the pandemic? Timothy Caulfield on how North Americans are beginning to see a long-term future with Covid-19.
With record numbers of new Covid-19 cases in countries around the world during the past month, the United States alone logged more than 1 million new infections per day over multiple days. This omicron variant, the latest and most infectious yet, is accompanying a shift in attitudes toward the coronavirus among public-health leaders, policy makers, and the public. Six doctors from U.S. President Joe Biden’s transition team of Covid-19 advisers published a set of three opinion articles in the medical the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in early January, recommending that the government transform its thinking about the virus. Rather than focusing on eradicating Covid-19, the doctors wrote, officials and healthcare professionals should be thinking about how best to help people live with it, as they now live with many respiratory viruses. Universities across the U.S. are already putting this approach into practice, as they loosen restrictions in order to keep schools open and in-person, even if new cases arise. What are these changes going to mean for day-to-day life?
Timothy Caulfield is the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta. In Caulfield’s view, the answer begins with a fundamental recognition that Covid-19 is here to stay in the world. In surveys, growing numbers of people say they accept that they’ll catch Covid-19. In North America, people are altering their mental pictures of social life—wearing a mask in public would seem normal, and booster shots would be expected annual or semi-annual tasks. But, as Caulfield sees it, attitudes and expectations are powerfully shaped by people’s political ideologies, with major differences of opinion on public-health measures among committed Republicans and Democrats.
Michael Bluhm: As you and I speak across the U.S.-Canadian border, where are we in the pandemic?
Timothy Caulfield: We’re at a very challenging and somewhat hopeful time. Omicron is tremendously infectious. Despite some good news about hospital and death rates, this is still a very serious public-health issue and needs to be treated as such.
But it’s also invited a movement in how people consider the pandemic—from an immediate public-health emergency to more of an ongoing slog. You’re starting to see the public recognize that the pandemic won’t have a defined end. There isn’t going to be a finish line or a moment when we all spill into the streets and celebrate, like at the end of a war.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of imagery around the pandemic as a war we were going to win. Unfortunately, that metaphor hasn’t played out. People are starting to recognize that this isn’t like World War II. This is much more like the “war on terror,” where it’s this ongoing slog that will require different tools at different times. It’s never going to end in the way that people perhaps envisioned it ending at the start of the pandemic.
Over the last couple of months, especially with omicron, this vision has become a reality not just for policy makers and scientists—who always knew it was true—but for most of the public.
That’s created some policy and communication challenges. Paradoxically, it’s led to more polarization. That’s where we are, and it’s not an easy place to be, because it creates real challenges for policy makers to signal to the public what’s next.
More from Timothy Caulfield at The Signal:
At the very beginning, the public-health community and politicians did a less-than-ideal job in how they communicated their goals. But the goals haven’t changed: to reduce deaths, hospitalizations, and the burden that the pandemic has on society. Our understanding of the disease has evolved, and Covid has evolved, creating new challenges for achieving these goals. But meanwhile, all the uncertainty around omicron has made it more difficult to talk about them. We’re really talking about risk reduction. That’s not going away. How many deaths, hospitalizations, and infections can we tolerate? What kinds of policies do we need to hit those goals? Those are complex questions for public messaging, especially when you’re asking people to participate in trying to meet them.”
Younger people are recognizing that this is going to become part of their lives. One of my kids—a young adult—envisions masks being with us in certain public spaces, possibly forever. If you feel like you’re symptomatic, you’re just going to wear a mask. It’s becoming increasingly normalized. People are recognizing that boosters are probably here to stay too. I’m seeing an acceptance and an understanding that, in one way or another, this is just going to be part of our future.”
I hesitate to say Covid is the new flu, because that phrase has been used by science deniers and anti-vaccine advocates to create the impression that we don’t have to worry about Covid. There are some parallels: It’s an infectious disease that isn’t likely to go away completely, and we’ll need to get our yearly shot. But there are significant differences: Right now, just look at hospitalization and deaths associated with the coronavirus. What’s fascinating and worrisome is the uncertainty around the science. There’s a messiness to it, and that can be weaponized by both sides to create narratives that support their positions.”
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