Here’s my dilemma, which perhaps I’m uniquely qualified to explain because only I would be dumb enough to admit it…

I’m worried that the virus might not come back.

So, okay, I phrased that in the very worst way because I’m being deliberately provocative. Obviously, I don’t want the virus to come back. I want it to go the way of other epidemics before it and disappear into the rear-view mirror of history. I do worry, however, about what would happen if it did…

At the moment, those of us who listen to experts and think that epidemiologists rather than politicians have the best grasp on facts, probably (I’m sure there’s the odd optimist) believe that the coronavirus has not yet been beaten. Trials of vaccines are far too early to claim that we’re certain to find one – for every happy-clappy upbeat story on the news about the Oxford trials there are other more sobering accounts in the more serious academic journals – and we really only have properly positive news about treatments such as Remdesivir. What victory we had was limited in scope. We had a moderate lockdown that reduced the transmission rates of the virus and the R0 number now appears to be below 1 is all parts of the UK. However, we also know that only takes us back to, perhaps, March, and we are now at that dangerous stage predicted by behavioural scientists who said that “boredom” would become a nationwide problem. Unless there’s something in the sunlight-will-kill-it theory, the R0 number will start to climb back up and, as the WHO warned again today, there will be a second wave. Without a proper system of tracking infections, tracing contacts, and quarantining people, then we’ll be back with an NHS reaching capacity and then Nightingale hospitals finally being used for what they were built for.

Yet those of us who think this seem to get fewer by the day. Many people appear to believe that COVID-19 is beaten. The Dominic Cummings story is perhaps the most damning for the government when it undermines their messaging (terrible though it was). People in the UK now sound defiant, wanting to prove a point to the government rather than stay safely indoors or, at least, maintain physical distancing. In the US, in particular, people are gathering on beaches, getting drunk in the same crowded swimming pools where others are urinating, and doing all manner of thing which leave the scientists chewing the insides of their face masks. Not only that, these are the people who spout all manner of ignorant nonsense in the face of the pandemic. They believe that God will save them, that the President of the United States knows best, and that the whole thing is a media hoax…

Those of us on the other side of the argument know that the virus doesn’t do politics or boredom or reach a point where it thinks it’s done enough damage. It isn’t going to disappear simply because Donald Trump wills it. But, conversely, we should also recognise that it doesn’t have a plan to ruin Trump’s election. Just as much as it is likely to come back, it could also disappear.

Think about that for a moment and tell me that doesn’t become a different kind of nightmare…

How do we explain to ignorant people that they were lucky? How do we prevent this from becoming another means of kicking science into the tall weeds? How do we prevent this from nudging populism forward and proving that, you know, Jim and Tilly Boondocks knows more about stuff than those lazy liberal eggheads in that there Washington D.C.? [Huck, spit, ping…]

The answer, I suppose, is that it’s not much of a dilemma at all. None of this is a matter of what I want. I don’t get to make that call but, even if it was, I’d always want the virus to disappear. We’d just face the problem of the politics afterwards. Yet I do fear that problem almost as much as I feared the epidemic. I worry about people who suddenly discover that their worst fears about their government were correct; that it was the demagogues and internet loons who were right all along. I worry that everything that science has done to defeat this virus might be used as a stick to beat the experts. Rather than leading us towards a new enlightenment, where we have a restored appreciation for facts, research, and learning, we might be heading into a new Dark Ages where virology, epidemiology, data modelling, and behaviour science are all discredited and governments will claim they have a remit to leave us even more unprepared for the next pandemic. As a culture, we’re already exhibiting the same crass attitude as many people who have dodged a bullet. We’ll think we’re somehow different, special, or, worst of all, saved because of God’s mercy.

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