Since I complained about it repeatedly in 2020, I should emphasize that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention belatedly and halfheartedly has started publishing realistic estimates of the extent of Covid-19 in the U.S.

It’s hard to describe as an error that which is deliberate, but at least the timely addendum reminds us that any fourth wave will be concentrated on people who are not among the 100 million or so who have already been infected and thus acquired some immunity as well as the possibly overlapping 100 million who have been vaccinated.

Which means the fourth wave will be largely confined to unvaccinated youngish people who diligently cooped themselves up for the duration and now are mixing and exposing themselves to risk in ways they didn’t a couple of months ago.

In much the same vein, results from California, Florida, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere dispose of any simple correlation of mandatory lockdowns with successful practice of social distancing. Overwhelmingly one conclusion holds: Like Florida, whose peak case load happened long after New York’s or northern Italy’s, certain places benefited from having time to think and consider and follow more-nuanced approaches to Covid’s arrival.

It’s possible we’ll find that lockdown measures came too late, aren’t obeyed or are simply irrelevant next to the choices people make about when and how to expose themselves to risk.

We also have taken belated notice that viruses evolve: The strain that exploded in northern Italy and dominated early in the U.S. was already different from the strain that emerged in Wuhan, though nobody dwelled on it at the time.

Politics may not drive science but it drives what science politicians call attention to. Now it’s new variants that have become the hook for reinforcing a social-distancing message that the public is understandably tired of hearing.

But evolution is not the enemy. For good reason birds seldom get sick from bird flu. As our coronavirus experience becomes more flu-like, one factor will be the evolutionary advantage to the virus of becoming less disabling to its hosts.

A simple mapping will one day explain the political response: Politicians in the West understood they had permission from their publics for stringent measures only when medical care was threatened for all.

China, which some media accounts fawn over uncomprehendingly, faced a far different calculus: A single-party dictatorship without a legitimacy-transfer mechanism, able to supply only one-tenth as many intensive care beds should the virus burn through a dozen urban populations bigger, denser and poorer than any in the West.

When non-polemical thinkers assess the pandemic, they will grasp why Western societies drew the line where they did—because of public expectations of personal autonomy and a qualitatively different societal risk-benefit trade-off.

The good news is that herd immunity is starting to take hold. This does not mean no Covid. It means less Covid. Less Covid overall means less chance of the next trillion-to-one dangerous mutation. Google the words “herd immunity” and “influenza” and running off the page will be evidence that herd immunity has never been taken to mean a disease stops existing. Flu still kills children by the dozens or hundreds in the U.S each year. If our testing is missing 80% of cases, the current fourth wave is equivalent to a medium-severity flu season. Flu is a contributing cause in the deaths of old and severely ill people (cancer, diabetes, lung conditions) often long after they stop testing positive for the flu virus. Warren Oates, the cowboy actor with a cult following among film aficionados, died at 53 from a heart attack complicated by a bout of flu plus hard living. Paul Newman, as a 40-year-old, was hospitalized for five days with the flu.

Even with new variants emerging, even with pharmaceutical companies engaged in a constant race to update their vaccines against an evolving virus, the epidemic will become a lot less epidemic-like. Activities that are pleasurable and productive will be less needful to avoid because the risk will be less.

A wild card is China, with its giant uninfected and (so far) unvaccinated population as it reopens to its largely immunized trading partners. Wild cards are other swaths of the world where the epidemic is still running a mostly (and tragically) natural course with unknown consequences for viral evolution. A wild card are immuno-compromised patients who spend months in the hospital fighting off the virus and are thought now to be important drivers of mutation—an argument for investing heavily in better treatment for these patients and carefully managing their cases.

The trip from novel pathogen to familiar one is not a day at the beach—but it means that Covid will become one of those subliminal risks (like dying of the flu) that humans manage best by mainly removing them from their minds.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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