Flags are flown at half-staff at the White House and all U.S. federal public buildings and grounds until sunset today in remembrance of the 1 million people who lost their lives to COVID-19.
After declaring the United States out of the "pandemic phase" April 27, Antony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president, sounded a more somber tone Thursday, when the U.S. pandemic death toll surpassed the staggering 1-million milestone: "This pandemic is not over. And if we bring down our guard and not do the things we need to do, forget about getting people vaccinated, forget about getting people boosted, we can get ourselves into the same trouble we were several months ago."
Although U.S. President Joe Biden called for continued vigilance against the pandemic when issuing a statement on the tragic milestone Thursday, Americans seem to have largely returned to pre-COVID normal, with packed bars and unmasked travelers in airports.
Not just the United States. As the pandemic entered its third year, people around the world are developing COVID fatigue or numbness.
Unlike past waves, Omicron's death toll in the U.S. seems to have barely made a ripple in people's consciousness. This is a mix of pandemic and compassion fatigue, Marney White, a psychologist and epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, told CNBC. There is a widespread assumption that the worst must already be over, leading to a false sense of security.
If history is a guide, we should be even more careful not to become complacent. John M. Barry, a distinguished scholar at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, wrote in The New York Times on Jan. 31, 2022 that we should not make the same mistake as in the later stages of 1918 influenza. "Most histories of the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed at least 50 million people worldwide say it ended in the summer of 1919 when a third wave of the respiratory contagion finally subsided. Yet the virus continued to kill. A variant that emerged in 1920 was lethal enough that it should have counted as a fourth wave," he wrote.
Cities in the United States imposed restrictions during the 1918 pandemic's virulent second and third waves, but virtually no city responded in 1920, according to Barry.
Bill Gates, the billionaire Microsoft co-founder and public health advocate, has also warned Americans that the pandemic isn't over yet. "We're still at risk of this pandemic generating a variant that would be even more transmissive and even more fatal," Gates told the Financial Times on May 1.
In China, many people have also developed COVID weariness: The lower fatality rate of the Omicron subvariant BA.2 has led many people to let down their guard. Some people have become careless about masks and social distancing. Some don't care if they get COVID-19, forgetting that their elderly loved ones may become victims of the virus if it is left unchecked.
Meanwhile, lower income due to COVID restrictions has made people frustrated.
U.S. research that defines the stages of stress on communities from disasters may be helpful to understand the pandemic fatigue we are experiencing. Kaye Hermanson, UC Davis Health psychologist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, wrote on the UC Davis Health website that early, during or right after a disaster, communities tend to pull together. People support each other and create a sense of community bonding, Hermanson said. "Eventually, that heroic spirit wears thin as difficulties and stress build up. That's when we hit the disillusionment phase," Hermanson said. "We lose our optimism and start to have negative or angry reactions."
Some in China are now experiencing the negative reactions Hermanson mentioned. But this is the time we should sober up again. China has about 176 million people aged 65 and older, many with underlying diseases, who are particularly vulnerable. Many elderly people have not yet been fully vaccinated, and medical facilities are unevenly distributed across the country.
A recent Chinese-American study published in Nature Medicine on Tuesday determined that China faces an Omicron "tsunami" that could overwhelm hospitals and kill more than 1.5 million people if it abandons its dynamic zero-COVID strategy. And the virus could mutate into a new strain that is more transmissible and fatal. All these factors mean that until vaccination and treatments can greatly reduce the risks, sticking to the dynamic zero-COVID strategy serves the best interest of the people, especially the vulnerable groups.
However, efforts must be made to strike a balance between preventing outbreaks and not overly disrupting the economy. Individuals' rights should be respected according to law. Breaking into the homes of residents without permission to spray disinfectants should not happen even with the good intention of protecting people's health. Authorities should study the feasibility of allowing patients with mild symptoms and asymptomatic carriers to isolate at home rather than forcibly taking them to quarantine facilities, and of permitting parents to accompany infected children in hospitals and isolation centers. Citywide lockdown or locking down a large area should be the last resort.
While citizens should not let down their guard against the virus, authorities should take every step to avoid unnecessarily causing suffering to people economically or mentally. The success of the country's battle against the pandemic hinges on every citizen and their willingness to be cooperative.
(The author is a deputy editor-in-chief of Shenzhen Daily.)