Will we still be dealing with coronavirus in 2021? Here’s what to expect

Friday, 7th August 2020, 10:57 am
Updated Friday, 7th August 2020, 10:57 am
(Photo: Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)

By this point, the world has been living under the shroud of coronavirus for over eight months. So it stands to reason that the whole thing must be on its way out, right?

Well, nobody really knows, and not many of the models put in place by experts and researchers suggest Covid-19 is going to go away any time soon.

Most predictions' suggest the planet is going to be experiencing the effects of the disease for some time to come, and even deep into 2021 (and beyond).

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What is going to happen next year?

The worst case scenario? Again, nobody really knows.

But since Covid-19 is such a wide-reaching phenomenon with plenty of devastating, world changing effects, countless experts and scientists are researching it and helping to plan for the future.

That means there are many long and short-term predictions to draw upon, although due to the breadth of possibles, that doesn't really narrow it down when we're considering what will happen next year.

The whole thing depends on a multitude of factors.

Does immunity stick, or does it wear off after a number of months? Does colder weather after the coronavirus' propensity to spread more quickly?

Will governments and populations continue to act in a responsible way when attempting to curb Covid-19's spread?

Lockdowns have - on the whole - proven to be an effective measure against the pandemic's spread.

But as patience begins to fray, and governments become more and more eager to reopen societies and economies, the risk of the disease spreading again increases.

Places like the US - where many states' lockdown protocols were lifted long before it was perhaps safe to do so - have seen cases skyrocket in recent weeks, as have countries where no national lockdown was ever imposed.

How does immunity affect it?

Immunity and a search for a Covid-19 vaccine continue to arguably be the most prescient factors when determining just what the future holds for the virus.

Immunity isn't a hard concept to understand: catch an illness once, never catch it again - but it might not be so simple with Covid-19.

It's still not clear whether exposure to the virus offers true immunity, and if it does, how long that immunity might last.

If immunity lasts less than a year (as it does with other human coronaviruses) there could be annual surges in infections for years to come.

Will winter see a second wave?

It's generally accepted that the virus persists on surfaces for much less time when exposed to sunlight and warmer temperatures.

So how will the incoming winter and the colder weather it brings affect the pandemic?

Akiko Iwasaki, an immunobiologist at the Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut expects the infection rate, and also the disease outcome, to be "worse in the winter."

Evidence suggests that not only does dry winter air improve the stability and transmission of respiratory viruses, it can also impair the effectiveness of immune defences.

Plus, people are more likely to take shelter from chillier temperatures indoors, where transmission is of a greater risk.

Simulations show that seasonal variation could make the containment of Covid-19 in the Northern Hemisphere very difficult.

Is this the end?

Covid-19 could be with us for some time. But don't let that spook you.

While the initial waves of the disease have - and likely will be - relatively catastrophic, as time goes on and more research into the disease is completed, governments and healthcare systems will likely have a better understanding of how to tackle it.

So while annual resurgences are likely to happen, we'll be better prepared to react.

What can be done?

Studies suggest that the general public have become more vigilant in practising antiviral behaviours, such as mask wearing and hand washing, even as government messaging to do so decreases with the lifting of lockdowns.

“It’s undervalued how much people’s behaviour has changed in terms of masks, hand washing and social distancing. It’s nothing like it used to be,” said Samir Bhatt, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Imperial College London.

A study by the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London found that if 50–65% of people are cautious in public, stepping down social-distancing measures every 80 days could help prevent further infection peaks.

At the same time, it's worth noting that all of the above scenarios and factors are intelligent predictions, but predictions nonetheless.

The pandemic thus far has not followed the 'usual' patterns that may be expected of pandemic flu, and we’re in a coronavirus pandemic for which we have no precedents.