For two years people have debated the value of masks, vaccine passports and more, to the point that they are no longer opinions but identities. And when opinions become identities, they warp our understanding and make it harder to change one’s mind as the situation changes. The truth is that we are all biased. For example, research shows that in the United States, Republicans tend to overrate the risks of getting vaccinated, and Democrats tend to overrate the risks from the disease.
Without a joint sense of the risks of Covid, and with open questions about things like the likelihood of getting long Covid or how effective the vaccines are at preventing transmission, it can seem increasingly impossible to bridge divides and unite people toward a shared view of what the end of this crisis looks like.
Because Covid-19 vaccines are effective in preventing severe disease from the virus but less effective in preventing infections, the continued spread of the coronavirus in highly vaccinated populations will become a Rorschach test: Everyone will see something different. People who remain worried about getting Covid-19 will see high cases during surges, which will justify their concerns and strengthen their own observance of mask-wearing and distancing. Calls for removing restrictions will seem dangerous. People who are less vulnerable to infection will focus on the lessened severity and do the opposite. They may view calls to keep restrictions in place as unnecessary and infringing on their freedoms.
For people who have been highly vigilant about Covid-19, the end of the pandemic could end up feeling like defeat. At some point, it will be time to lift restrictions and lower the guards. The people they’ve been debating about masks or whether the crisis is improving will then be right. It won’t be because this position was always correct, but because the circumstances have changed.
That’s why strong leadership is so critical for ending the pandemic. As the need for restrictions lessens, it’s up to public health and political leaders to explain why restrictions are being lifted, just as they had to explain why they were being imposed in the first place. Authorities must tell the public why they are placing more responsibility on individuals and, ideally, address the concerns of those who may not be ready, as well as those who remain at higher risk, like the immune compromised.
As we tentatively approach the end of the crisis period of the pandemic, leaders need to help people put risk into perspective. If countries haven’t articulated how they will deal with pandemic trade-offs, they need to do so now. The longer it takes for the realization that the risk from Covid is lowering, the longer the crisis will last and the deeper the divides it will create. Should new variants turn the presumed end (at least for Denmark) into a brief pause, such cleavages will make the next round with the virus even more difficult.