AUGUST 8 — You may think this is a relatively simple question to answer but you’d be surprised.

If we were anywhere before say, October 2021 this question needn’t even arise. Cases were still high, vaccination rates (while certainly commendable) hadn’t quite achieved the peaks Malaysia desired, schools and malls were generally empty, hospitals were still taking a beating, roads were empty, etc.

No one in their right mind was going to suggest the pandemic was anywhere near over.

But what about now? What about August 2022? Are we still in a pandemic or not? Today, malls are full and I’m back to feeling hell-scared of parking during weekends. The roads are even more jammed than pre-pandemic times.

Schools are open. Tourists are flying in left, right and centre. And we’re not getting any more red-alert WhatsApp messages about hospital wards and ICUs being crowded.

I think it’s fair to say that at least some (if not many) Malaysians no longer believe there is a pandemic, without declaring these same people deluded or irresponsible.

But that’s just one perspective.

Chatting and surfing around I have, in fact, gleaned at least three perspectives on “whether or not we are still in a pandemic.” Let me know if you’re familiar with, or even hold to, any of them?

View 1: There never was a pandemic

Yes, I know this may come as a shock to most readers, but there are quite a few Malaysians who believe that the period from March 2020 to October 2021 was entirely contrived and unnecessary.

Most of these folks fall under the unvaxxed category, rejecting the vaccines (especially Pfizer’s mRNA one) as experimental and thus dangerous, and they view the worldwide pandemic as a quasi-conspiracy by Big Pharma and weak governments. The former was trying to push a new vaccine while the latter surrendered to a virus whose fatality was less than 0.1 per cent.

These folks do not deny the healthcare system was strained by Covid-19 patients but they attribute a lot of the panic to the 24/7 media attention given to the “pandemic.” They also ask why the news gave overwhelming attention to those who tested positive and suffered (and died) but practically ignored those who were positive yet didn’t show many symptoms and simply carried on with life.

With these folks, the answer to “Is the pandemic over?” is obvious as the question, to them, never really got off the ground.

I personally know at least four individuals who hold this view. While I may disagree — and so I may understand why they have been (regretfully) demonised — I have to say they, of all the perspectives represented here, are usually among the most fearless and the least “bothered” by Covid-19 (obviously).

In light of mental health concerns which have been aggravated over the past two years, perhaps we need (just a bit) more people like this? At the very least, they helpfully serve as a bookend to the very popular View 2 below.

People spend their leisure time at Lalaport shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
People spend their leisure time at Lalaport shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

View 2: The pandemic will never be over until we get zero transmission

I suspect this view is by far the most popular one. I think in any office or community or mall or train, roughly 80 per cent of the people there will hold this view to some degree or another.

This is the view that the pandemic is far from over. Because there will always be new variants, because of long Covid and because the existing vaccines do not prevent transmission, Covid-19 simply will not be eradicated for the next few years — and we cannot declare the pandemic over until it is.

The most helpful part of this perspective, to me, is that it represents the most cautious one and the one most alert to the potential risks involved.

This position will be the first to warn the Titanic of an impending ice-berg. They see the presence of even a few positive cases as foreshadowing a repeat of mid-2021 when our hospitals and morgues were at breaking point.

They are concerned that our society may have millions of people suffering from long Covid in the future, hence their insistence on zero Covid as the primary requirement for declaring the pandemic over.

Folks holding to this position will be the first to remind people to quarantine if they have symptoms, to put on their masks indoors (and even outdoors), to test regularly, to maintain social distancing and so on.

In light of the tragedy of the past two years, it’s hard to deny the value of this perspective. Maybe it’s always good to remain cautious and vigilant; it’s hardly surprising this is likely to be the most widely held view of the pandemic both online and offline.

View 3: The pandemic is over as long as the healthcare system is no longer threatened

Finally, sitting between the above perspectives, is what is being known as the “Alt-Middle” position.

Proponents here recognise that Covid-19 absolutely devastated the healthcare systems of many countries throughout 2020 and 2021. The deaths and despair we saw in Italy, Denmark, India and so on is proof that Covid-19 was no mere hoax and that declaring a global pandemic was the only responsible thing to do.

However, by late 2021, a majority of countries had already been vaccinated and practically every national healthcare system was no longer burdened with non-stop incoming ICU patients and Covid deaths.

Plus, it became statistically undeniable that an overwhelming majority of Covid-19 patients who were admitted were either unvaccinated or very elderly and sick.

Ergo, almost all countries have vaccinated their way out of a healthcare crisis and Covid-19 no longer threatens any society with actual or potential collapse.

As a result, does it make sense to continue saying that a pandemic exists? If the pandemic was “on” when, say, saw more than 200 deaths per day in August 2021, isn’t it only logical to say that it’s already “off” when there are fewer than 10 deaths daily in August 2022? This perspective would, unlike View 2, insist that zero Covid is essentially a pipe-dream. As per what’s happening in some Chinese cities, pursuing it only creates untold misery for millions of people for weeks and weeks with hardly any end in sight.

Are such restrictions necessary when a majority of the population have already been vaccinated? Since Malaysia’s hospitals are no longer burdened, even despite having an Omicron surge between February and April this year, then doesn’t this more or less mean that Covid-19 has become akin to the flu, in which they could be a zillion positive cases but life just goes on as normal? What do you think? Which view do you believe makes the most sense?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.