Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Christmas 2021: Time Warp

The end of the pandemic will not be televised

BMJ 2021; 375 doi: (Published 14 December 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;375:e068094
  1. David Robertson, doctoral candidate1,
  2. Peter Doshi, associate professor2
  1. 1Program in the History of Science, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
  2. 2University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, Baltimore, MD, USA
  3. Correspondence to: D Robertson

Dashboards of pandemic statistics have dominated screens and helped to track covid-19, but David Robertson and Peter Doshi explain why they might not be enough to define its end

As the year 2021 started, the covid-19 pandemic seemed to be receding. Discussions and predictions about “opening up,” a return to “normal,” and achieving herd immunity were in the air.1234 But for many, optimism receded as cases and deaths surged in India, Brazil, and elsewhere. Attention turned to SARS-CoV-2 virus variants—most recently, the emergence of omicron. Just as the end seemed to be on the horizon, it was interrupted by a foreboding that the pandemic could be a long way from over.56

Unlike any previous pandemic, covid-19 has been closely tracked through dashboards that aim to show the real time movement and effect of coronavirus; they track laboratory testing metrics, hospital and intensive care admissions, transmission rates, and, most recently, vaccine doses delivered. These dashboards—with their panels of numbers, statistics, epidemic curves, and heat maps—have dominated our televisions, computers, and smartphones. At their core is the allure of objectivity and data to grasp onto in the midst of uncertainty and fear. They have helped populations conceptualise a need for rapid containment and control,7 directing public sentiment, fuelling pressure for countermeasures, and maintaining an aura of emergency.7 They offer a sense of control when cases are coming down following certain countermeasures but can also drive a sense of helplessness and impending catastrophe when cases rise.

Problems defining pandemic endings

There is no universal definition of the epidemiological parameters of the end of a pandemic. By what metric, then, will we know that it is actually over? The World Health Organization declared the covid-19 pandemic, but who will tell us when it’s over?

The ubiquity of dashboards has helped …

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