When will the coronavirus pandemic end? Well, isn’t that the trillion-yen question.

As COVID-19 curves peak and crest across the world, residential front doors and global borders remain resolutely shut. Economies are stuttering, stocks are tumbling, opposing-party politicians are at loggerheads on how to deal with the crisis, and public health officials are beginning to look weary and haggard by the ensuing stress. Yet most ominous of all, the grim reaper continues to haunt the halls of ICUs where the novel coronavirus has run wild.

Japan is on a belated and worrying upslope as COVID-19 cases had surpassed 2,000 in Tokyo and 8,000 in the nation as of Tuesday. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency on April 7, he noted the virus would peak in about “two weeks” if the social distancing strictures were appropriately observed. That could turn out to be a very big “if.”

Life as usual has become forbidden fruit, and one can’t help but wonder when this will all end. Japan implemented a pseudo-lockdown later than most other nations had enforced more stringent protocols. We just have to hope that isn’t to our detriment.

How Do Pandemics End?

In this case, what does ‘end’ mean? Talk of the virus just disappearing at some indeterminate point in time is wishful thinking. The end of the crisis will likely come when a sufficient amount of the population is immune – known as ‘herd immunity’ – or when a vaccine has been created. The coronavirus will still be floating in the ether in a post-pandemic world, possibly even resurfacing annually; the aim is to have it under some sort of control.

Halting a pandemic is a difficult task; a task that’s made even more difficult when you are dealing with a new virus. Experts are still trying to make sense of how efficiently the coronavirus spreads and why some patients of the disease fare worse than others, while no vaccines are yet available to immunize the global population at large.

Furthermore, antiviral therapies used to treat sufferers, while available, are still in their embryonic phase in terms of effectiveness. And antibody tests – used to detect who has already caught the virus (possibly without having expressed symptoms) – may be around the corner but are currently playing out only in clinical trials.

Vaccines are the number one way to serve a pandemic its coup de grace, but in this case it’s probably a year to 18 months away. As Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, explained in The Guardian, to engineer an exit out of this global crisis, we need a mixture of effective COVID-19 treatments, diagnostics to identify those who are immune, and sharing of health and medical information across borders while scientists work in the wings to develop a vaccine.

For Japan, looking at the data and response mechanisms of other countries may help indicate the route back to normality.

Global Responses

Donald Trump, admittedly not always a paragon of truth and accurate predictions on COVID-19 concerns, is aiming to reopen US society as soon as May 1 – a decision that is being overseen by the White House coronavirus task force. One member, Dr Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has become a prominent spokesperson. In a CNN interview, Fauci stated that validated antibody tests would be available this week.

The US has usurped Italy and Spain as the worst affected nation. If antibody testing proves to be successful in identifying those who have had the virus – and therefore are believed to be immune – resulting in a relaxation of social distancing measures, it could be a pivotal moment in the course of the pandemic.

South Korea also provides an interesting litmus test for combatting the viral spread. Japan’s neighbor used mass testing and tracking to locate virus clusters and individuals who may have been exposed, which proved decisive in bringing it under control. Given the virus surfaced in Seoul and Tokyo at similar times, it highlights why Japan’s reluctance to test may have been a mismanaged decision.

Though Japan’s testing methods (or lack thereof) have come under scrutiny, it is one of the global frontrunners in developing antiviral therapies to treat sufferers of the disease. Fujifilm-developed Avigan, a drug used to treat seasonal flu, proved effective in relieving symptoms of COVID-19 sufferers during the height of the outbreak in source-city Wuhan. (Japan has offered the drug to at least 20 other countries at no cost.)

As antibody tests, antiviral therapies and mass testing become more commonplace, the light will start to flicker at the end of this dark tunnel.

How Can You Do Your Part?

Social distancing is 2020’s major buzz term. It’s a simple concept: keep your distance from people you don’t live with (approximately two meters). Japan is championing its own social distancing mantra: ‘Avoid the Three C’s’ (closed spaces, crowded places, close-quarters conversation). It’s not rocket science, but there is clearly an issue in understanding.

I’m becoming depressingly accustomed to the scenes I encounter on my daily run in the park – while trying to give fellow joggers a wide berth of course. Large groups of kids play basketball, mothers chat in close proximity as their children run amok on jungle gyms, and septuagenarian cameramen pack together sharing tips and aiming their bazooka-like scopes at the same thicket of conifers – apparently catching sight of a chortling wagtail is more important than personal safety. It is a brilliant and continuous advert for exactly what not to do.

Theoretical epidemiologist, Professor Hiroshi Nishimura, a member of Japan’s health ministry COVID-19 response team, set the time frame for the state of emergency (set to finish on May 6). His estimates were based on everyone reducing person-to-person contact by 80%, in which case the virus would be contained in Tokyo within a month. Reduced by 70%, it would be contained within three months.

Bringing this pandemic to a close will rely heavily on the efforts of our heroic medical professionals, trusted public health advisors and tireless scientists on the hunt for a vaccine. But the rest of us are not absolved all responsibility. Everyone has their part to play in this long-winded tragedy, so it’s probably best we don’t take leave of the script.

Feature photo of Asakusa: image_vulture / Shutterstock.com