Disease experts are turning away from the idea of a . While it sounds like semantics, the concept of pandemic waves could explain how we got the response to COVID-19 so wrong, and how we decide to manage it in the coming weeks and months.
Pandemics can move in waves. Flu has often had two waves, many people succumbing in the first winter of a pandemic before some respite in summer, as the virus moves to the other planet’s other hemisphere for winter.
A second wave then hits; the virus moves geographically back towards us with the cold weather, infecting all the people it didn’t get the first time.
But this is not what his happening with COVID-19. It did spread towards us geographically from China back in January and February.
But now the virus is established globally, we can see it doesn’t behave anything like flu. It’s perfectly capable of spreading in warmer sunny weather.
You only need to look at Spain and South America to see that. It looks really likely now that it didn’t die down this spring as Europe warmed up and people went outside. It died down because of lockdown measures, social distancing, and testing and isolation.
The fact the virus coming back has nothing to do with a second wave, propelled by some natural ability of the virus or seasonal influence. It’s all down to our behaviour of its hosts: us.
As lockdown has been eased globally, cases of the virus have returned. Not just in countries that had severe outbreaks to begin with.
Places like South Korea and Hong Kong which swiftly tested and isolated the coronavirus into submission are seeing worrying rebounding of cases.
The government is right to be concerned about cases being imported to the UK from hotspots overseas. But that alone wont stop the UK suffering the same fate.
There are still hundreds of new cases of COVID-19 being recorded every day. And hospitalisation and deaths, while a tiny fraction of what they were during the initial peak of the disease, they are remaining stubbornly flat or even increasing slightly.
The idea of COVID being like the flu was responsible for some of our biggest mistakes.
Testing wasn’t thought to be central to tackling it early on, it was assumed it would be impossible to contain.
The idea that “herd immunity” would develop was lifted straight out of the flu pandemic handbook. And the hope that summer might give us respite is turning out to be wrong.
But that doesn’t mean we should be less concerned about this winter. If anything we should be more worried.
The virus needs people mixing with each other to spread. That’s what’s allowing new outbreaks to occur across Europe and the rest of the world.
If it was moving like a wave, we could rely on a quiet period now to stamp out infections in preparation for people, tired of social distancing and in need of social contact, heading indoors, in less well ventilated places.
The more virus there is around as we enter winter, the more sudden, and severe, a winter outbreak could be.
Now is the time to stamp on as many sparks as possible and hope we can prevent that fire from breaking out.