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Two Years In!

In Canada, it was almost exactly two years ago that the COVID-19 lockdowns started. When students went away on March break, and didn’t return to school. When many businesses shifted almost entirely to remote work. When the world changed.

I think that many people thought that this was going to be a “false alarm”, or that it would be for a few weeks. Almost everyone was watching the news, but most were looking for when it would be over, and not really listening or understanding that this might be different.

I realized the implications fairly early, and set my expectations accordingly. Now, I’d like to think this was because I’m a clear thinker and saw things that others didn’t, but it’s far more likely because I played Plague Inc., and have watched a LOT of Zombie movies.

For whatever reason, I was watching closely when cases started being reported in Europe and North America, and noticed that they were scattered across the countries, rather than being limited to specific areas. That strongly suggested to me that COVID-19 had already “escaped” containment and that it was only a matter of time before the geometric progression would be visible in the reported numbers. If this was true (and it turned out to be so), then this would only be “over” once we reached “herd immunity”.

The problem, of course, is that many people did not understand what that meant, and a number of politicians were happy to contribute to that situation. To simplify, herd immunity is a phenomenon which occurs when a sufficiently high number of members of a population are immune to a disease that an infected member is unlikely to interact with a member who is vulnerable.

Sounds great, right?

Well, yes, but there are a few minor problems. I’ll touch on three of them.

First, the calculations are quite complex, and have a very large number of variables. At the highest level, we’re looking at the so-called “R nought” (the average number of expected cases directly generated by a given case) and the HIT (“Herd Immunity Threshold”), but all of these vary based on a number of factors, many of which need to be estimated, and usually need to be averaged across multiple countries or other groupings.

Second, you need to have reliable numbers. For COVID-19, we appear to have three main groupings of geographies (countries, or states/provinces). Some geographies have robust reporting and are generally reporting numbers “honestly”, some have weak reporting infrastructure (meaning it’s very hard to get reliable information) but are open about what they are able to provide, and others are providing information which appears to range from misleading to downright fictional.

Third, we’re talking about moving targets. Different strains of the virus frequently have significant differences in their infectivity, severity, and the effectiveness of a given vaccine. In the case of COVID-19, the estimated herd immunity thresholds range from approximately 65% for the original COVID-19 strain, to 80% for the “Delta” variant. As new strains appear, the target shifts again.

Now, it’s all very well to figure when herd immunity is likely to start appearing, but you then have to get there. As I understand it, there are really only two ways – infection and immunization. We know that vaccinations are safe, that the rate of serious side-effect is approximately 1 in 100,000, and that vaccinations either prevent or dramatically reduce the severity of an infection.

So far, there have been an estimated 6 million deaths out of 458 million cases, which comes to about 1.3%. Without vaccination, and assuming a global population of 7.9 billion and herd immunity at 65% (original strain, which is lower than Delta), this would represent over 62 million additional deaths. Fortunately, we now have multiple vaccines and millions vaccinated, but vaccine rates are still not sufficient in many places.

Still, even when we achieve herd immunity (by whatever means), that doesn’t mean we simply go back to the way things were before. Too many things have changed, including us.

Take remote work as an example. Before COVID-19, relatively few people regularly worked remotely, and most companies were not really equipped to deal with a large percentage of their workforce working remotely.

COVID-19 changed all of that. Over the past two years, most companies have invested heavily in the infrastructure needed to support a remote workforce, so there is no real financial barrier to allowing it and there may actually be significant cost savings in reducing leasing costs for premium office-space. Also, after the initial adjustment, many people LIKE working remotely, don’t really want to go back into the office, and many will change jobs if forced to return to the office.

There are many other ways in which the world has changed, and many of those changes were simply the acceleration of existing trends, so there is really no going back.

Some essentially put their lives “on hold”, waiting for things to go back to “normal”, but most who could took the opportunity to try different things. In my own case, I would almost certainly not have started this blog, or do many of the things which led to it and which have led from it.

Wherever we end up, though, we’ll get there by going forward, as there really is no way to go back.

Just keep swimming!



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