Though at times it can feel hard to believe – especially in recent weeks, perhaps – this pandemic will not last for ever. With more than 5 million dead and huge economic and social costs, its toll has been immense, and unnecessarily so. Secrecy in China, complacency in Europe, reckless and callous rightwing populism in the US and Brazil, and the inequity in vaccine distribution have all contributed.
Yet if we learn its lessons, we will be better prepared next time. For there will be a next time. Covid is not a once-in-a-century crisis – an idea encouraged by its arrival 101 years after the last major pandemic, the “Spanish” flu, which killed at least 50 million. The mega-flu outbreak that many experts had seen as the next great threat is no less likely to arrive because Covid got here first. A pandemic of similar scale is likely within the next six decades, and could happen at any point in that timespan, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in August; others have put the risk of a comparable crisis within the next decade at around one in four. And as Prof Dame Sarah Gilbert, the creator of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, warned recently: “The next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both.”