Two years on
Time for a little more reflection
Welcome to Plugging the Gap (my email newsletter about Covid-19 and its economics). In case you don’t know me, I’m an economist and professor at the University of Toronto. I have written lots of books including, most recently, on Covid-19. You can follow me on Twitter (@joshgans) or subscribe to this email newsletter here. (I am also part of the CDL Rapid Screening Consortium. The views expressed here are my own and should not be taken as representing organisations I work for.)
March 12th, 2020, is my date that the pandemic started. I mark it because that was the day I decided to change my life because of Covid-19 and stay at home. Within a few days, everyone had to do this. A year ago, I marked the date with a reflection about the first year of the pandemic. What about year two?
Year two has been better. Vaccines have turned Covid-19 from a life threatening fear to a serious and on-going disease. That’s a big and wonderful change.
What vaccines did not do is eliminate the pandemic. No one expected that to happen immediately as there would be shortages. But I think there was optimism that people would get the vaccines and we could return to something like a normal life. But for another year, I have remained at home and our building at the Rotman School remains largely empty. This seems profoundly odd given that vaccines are required. Ultimately, since you can still get Covid with a vaccine (especially, Omicron), we have stayed away. And since that means that if we go to work and want to talk to anyone, we still have to be masked, we have stayed away. Even though Ontario is eliminating that mandate next week, there is no indication that will flow on to the workplace. It will be some time before we return I suspect.
It will also take time for travel to become normal. In a few weeks, I may finally get on a plane again. While previously, I worried about my health, now I have an even worse worry, inconvenience. Put simply, I could get Covid (or more accurately test positive for Covid) and be stranded. Knowing myself, I won’t take that well. It is enough to make me quite apprehensive.
Last Year’s Predictions
Last year I placed a marker for myself for this year with some predictions. The future is hard to know. No one would have surely guessed that the past year would involve the rapid skill acquisition amongst a large segment of the population in their knowledge of five-letter words. Nonetheless, let’s see what I said:
I feel the need to forecast what the world might be like in a year’s time just to capture my own expectations at this moment in time. Here goes, in 12 months …
All of Canada, the US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and East Asia will be vaccinated to the extent that demand no longer exceeds supply.
Those countries will all have endemic levels of Covid-19 which will turn out to be a shock to Australia, New Zealand and East Asia but a comfort to the rest. The shocked countries will stay cut off from the world longer than others with an intense debate but will finally realise that exposure is inevitable. They will lament the fact that other countries did not follow their policies in 2020.
Masks will not be worn and there will be no social distancing restrictions in those countries.
There will be a big surge in Covid cases amongst the young in the Fall of 2021 as it turns out many of them didn’t bother to be vaccinated in the Summer.
The research focus will move to treatments for long Covid. The US will use long-Covid as a reason to try for another universal health insurance push.
For other countries, not on the above list, vaccinations will continue and they will be supply-constrained. This will be an on-going tragedy.
We will find it hard to remember that we spent 18 months at home. After a couple of months of “gee, imagine being around people” things will go back to normal. Only a few trends will turn out to be have been accelerated. Some businesses who thought work from home was permanent will rethink that. People will lament not being able to coordinate work from home with their colleagues. Work from home Friday will be introduced.
These are all without explanation so that I have something to point to if, and I really hope this won’t happen, I am writing another reflection on the year on March 12, 2022.
So here we go. Let’s score this. I will take 1, 2, 4, 6 as correct. On 2 and 4, this is what the last year looked like across many countries:
That’s not exactly game over for the pandemic. So 3, as I have already mentioned, hasn’t quite got there. That was because of Omicron largely and in most places the restrictions are being removed. So that is an almost. 5 is getting there on research but I haven’t seen another universal health insurance push of any significance. Finally, there is 7. I think that is still going to happen but because return to work has been slow, that hasn’t happened. So that can be counted as on-going. All in all, therefore, not a bad score.
Interestingly, what was missing here was anything about testing. A year ago, we were facing a hard time getting rapid tests approved, let alone used at scale. I was actually pessimistic that these could play a significant role in the management of this pandemic. A year later, most of my time has been spent on that. I am far more optimistic. Rapid tests moved from a fringe thing to a mainstream pandemic activity. And now we have actually conducted 2 million of these tests in Canada and we have been able to prove how well they work. (You can read all about this in our Science article). But Omicron has proven difficult. The tests still work but Omicron moves so fast, it is hard to get ahead of it with rapid tests. So tests are here to stay but they are far from being a practical solution yet.
The Next Year
I thought then perhaps I should make another set of predictions for the next year. Frankly, however, I don’t actually have a clear picture. To be sure, I think we will go back to normal for a time which isn’t much of a prediction. But there is also a chance things could go array again. Epidemiologists believe that is likely in the Fall/Winter 2022-23. They have actually been pretty right about those things. I just can’t face articulating a prediction here with a view to reviewing it again in a year time.
If I can offer a prediction — although it is admittedly as much a hope as an analysis — it would be this:
There will be very few newsletters from me over the next year and by March 12, 2023, I will forget that March 12 is a date I should reflect on the pandemic.
Of course, that won’t stop me from placing a subscribe now button as I usually do. So here you go.