Does endemic mean the end of the Covid-19 pandemic? Many countries thought so — unwisely it must be said.
But Arcturus, also known as XBB.1.16, the subvariant of Omicron, says no. As if to drive home the point, Arcturus, first identified in January, has now spread to more than 22 countries, Malaysia being one of them. In India alone, 10,000 cases are reported daily, prompting the country to resume production of vaccines.
More than three years after the first Covid-19 case was reported in Wuhan, China, the pandemic has been breaking news about variants and subvariants. According to the British newspaper Independent, virologists in the United Kingdom (UK) are warning of the inevitability of another epidemic on the scale of Covid-19.
But many around the world who think Covid-19 is a once-in-a-generation crisis may consider such a view alarmist. True, the highly transmissible Arcturus isn't aggressive now, but it may just become one.
The virologists may be right. Take tuberculosis (TB). It was commonly believed to have peaked between the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet today, TB infects a quarter of the world's population, causing 1.5 million deaths every year, according to Path, a health portal.
Though the term "tuberculosis" was coined in 1834, scientists believe TB to have been around for as long as three million years, variously called "phthisis" in Greece, "tabes" in Rome and "consumption" in England. An old echo of variants and subvariants? Perhaps. But the world may have missed the lesson TB is teaching us, just like the lesson Covid-19 is schooling us in: endemicity isn't the end.
We think there are advantages to being as alarmed as the scientists in the UK are. First, it keeps our public health system robust. For this to happen, there must be the necessary investment, and a sustained one at that. Whether we like it or not, investment in public healthcare is a function of the perceived danger.
Absent such a perception, so too will be the state of readiness of the healthcare system. Have we forgotten the enormous stress our healthcare system was under three years ago? And how it was overwhelmed in every state?
The government needs to get the country ready before the next wave strikes. Second, endemicity as an end state has led to a kind of national complacency. The dropping of mask mandates, the deemphasis on Covid-19 tracking system and the lack of stress on standard operating procedures are contributory factors.
People are letting their guard down. Hari Raya, too, was celebrated like the pandemic never happened. "See, Ma, no masks", appears to have been the celebrants' cry of joy.
The time is ripe for the government to enforce some measures as a way of nipping the problem in the bud before it gets out of hand. We are glad that the Health Ministry is proposing to reintroduce the use of masks in schools.
Not many like mask mandates, but we think such rules help contain the virus given the susceptibility of children to Arcturus. There is strong evidence that masks, such as N95 or KN95, do keep infections down.
There is a view, though a controversial one, that masks have done a better job than vaccines in preventing transmissions. We leave the debate to the virologists, but the point is taken: masks work.