Is the pandemic really over?
As far as most Americans are concerned, the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Life seems to be returning to some form of pro-corona normality. Masks are disappearing. Restaurants are filling up. And indoor and outdoor venues for sports and entertainment events are swelling.
But is this an idyllic bubble that will soon burst? Or has the major danger passed? Caution should be the order of the day; it seems that is not the case.
President Biden’s goal of vaccinating 70 percent of American adults by Independence Day will not be met. Vaccination rates are declining. In states where inoculations are low and the Delta variant is spreading, infections are rising, in some cases at pandemic rates
Of course, the trajectory of the pandemic is headed in the right direction here. But globally the picture is much grimmer. In preparing for a trip to Europe next week, my first travel in nearly 18 months, I found that only one country, Finland, has been assigned a Level Two status for travel, meaning it is relatively safe. Among our 29 NATO allies, all but four have been issued Level Three status, meaning travel is not recommended and should be reconsidered in large part because of the Delta variant.
Four NATO countries are now Level Four: Do not travel. These include the three Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Belgium, where NATO headquarters are located. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has deferred a full reopening of that nation because of the variant. And India has reported that there may be a new strain of Delta.
According to Johns Hopkins, so far the number of global deaths due to COVID is approaching 3.8 million, with more fatalities in the first six months of 2021 than in all of 2020. And the infection rate in many parts of the world is still rising. Even though the U.S. requires a negative COVID-19 PCR test or proof of recovery for entry, keeping the virus out is impossible.
It is thus imprudent and probably dangerous to assume that the U.S. will remain relatively isolated from the rest of the world, certainly in not taking precautions should conditions reverse and contagion spread.
The patently obvious first preventive action is widespread vaccination of at least 70 percent of the entire population. Given resistance to vaccinations among many Americans and the challenges in inoculating the young, achieving social immunity remains an aspiration rather than a reality.
So, for a moment, assume that another wave of COVID strikes the U.S. this fall. What are the possible consequences? Masks, social distancing and shutting down large gatherings would be required. Whether schools would remain open would depend on how contagious new strains and variants of COVID are to younger Americans. The same issue of closings applies to businesses, and thus we could see widespread job losses.
Would that mean returning to the conditions of last year, when much of the nation was closed down? Or have we learned enough to navigate through another wave of COVID? And is anyone planning or thinking about a worst-case scenario? Or is that contingency too frightening to discuss publicly?
Then there is the issue of money. The government has already allocated about $6 trillion in new spending. Given the proposed bipartisan infrastructure bill that calls for about a further trillion dollars and the president’s intention to sign it with an additional package that could amount to several trillion dollars more, is the U.S. risking potential insolvency as the national debt soars well over 150 percent of GDP?
Having endured one crisis does not mean that preparations for another crisis will be made.
We must be prepared for the worst, but is anyone listening?
Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book due out this year is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.”