Pandemics Don't Really End—They Echo


Aug 28, 2023

A woman wears two masks as she walks down Broadway in lower Manhattan, New York, December 21, 2022, photo by Anthony Behar/Reuters

A woman wears two masks as she walks down Broadway in lower Manhattan, New York, December 21, 2022

Photo by Anthony Behar/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on TIME on August 28, 2023.

The public health emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic officially ended on May 11, 2023. It was a purely administrative step. Viruses do not answer to government decrees. Reported numbers were declining, but then started coming up again during the summer. By August, hospital admissions climbed to more than 10,000 a week. This was nowhere near the 150,000 weekly admissions recorded at the peak of the pandemic in January 2022.

The new variant is more contagious. It is not yet clear whether it is more lethal. Nor is it clear whether the recent rise is a mere uptick or foreshadows a more serious surge. More than 50,000 COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the U.S. in 2023. Somehow, this has come to be seen as almost normal.

Even while health authorities are keeping their eyes on new “variables of concern,” for much of the public COVID-19 has been cancelled. The news media have largely moved on to other calamities. The pandemic is over. Is it?

History shows that pandemics have ragged endings. Some return again and again. The Justinian Plague that swept through the Roman Empire in the 6th century returned in waves over the next 200 years. The Black Death that killed half the population of Europe between 1347 and 1351 came back more than 40 times over the next 400 years.…

The remainder of this commentary is available at

Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and author of Plagues and Their Aftermath: How Societies Recover from Pandemics.

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