BMJ: The end of the pandemic will not be televised

"As an extraordinary period in which social life was upturned, the covid-19 pandemic will be over when we turn off our screens and decide that other issues are once again worthy of our attention. Unlike its beginning, the end of the pandemic will not be televised."

(Published 14 December 2021)

Dashboards of pandemic statistics have dominated screens and helped to track covid-19, but David Robertson and Peter Doshi explain why they might not be enough to define its end.

As the year 2021 started, the covid-19 pandemic seemed to be receding. Discussions and predictions about “opening up,” a return to “normal,” and achieving herd immunity were in the air.1234 But for many, optimism receded as cases and deaths surged in India, Brazil, and elsewhere. Attention turned to SARS-CoV-2 virus variants—most recently, the emergence of omicron. Just as the end seemed to be on the horizon, it was interrupted by a foreboding that the pandemic could be a long way from over.56

Unlike any previous pandemic, covid-19 has been closely tracked through dashboards that aim to show the real time movement and effect of coronavirus; they track laboratory testing metrics, hospital and intensive care admissions, transmission rates, and, most recently, vaccine doses delivered. These dashboards—with their panels of numbers, statistics, epidemic curves, and heat maps—have dominated our televisions, computers, and smartphones. At their core is the allure of objectivity and data to grasp onto in the midst of uncertainty and fear. They have helped populations conceptualise a need for rapid containment and control,7 directing public sentiment, fuelling pressure for countermeasures, and maintaining an aura of emergency.7 They offer a sense of control when cases are coming down following certain countermeasures but can also drive a sense of helplessness and impending catastrophe when cases rise.

Problems defining pandemic endings

There is no universal definition of the epidemiological parameters of the end of a pandemic. By what metric, then, will we know that it is actually over? The World Health Organization declared the covid-19 pandemic, but who will tell us when it’s over?