As we approach the two-year anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so much has changed. At the same time, so much has not.
On one hand, the introduction of vaccines has helped to reduce the number of cases, which allows for the return of in-person classes and other activities. On the other hand, mask-wearing and other restrictions still loom in many public spaces, even at UNC.
Recently, it was reported that some European countries were moving forward with the removal of pandemic-era restrictions, reinstating the idea that society will just have to live with COVID-19.
It’s still unclear whether the U.S. will follow suit. According to Our World in Data, only 63 percent of Americans are vaccinated which is far short of the likes of Denmark and France, who have vaccination rates of 81 percent and 76 percent, respectively.
But what would living with COVID-19 look like for colleges across America, including UNC?
If our COVID-19 guidelines were to match European ones, then the first, but arguably biggest difference would be a decline in mask-wearing. The University currently recommends wearing masks in all public settings, including residence halls. But those who have been on campus will know that mask-wearing guidelines are already enforced loosely by many, especially in outdoor areas.
But if this mandate is lifted for indoor spaces, then the sense of normality will be more apparent, especially at events like basketball games or even just being in a class, where mask-wearing is one of the last remaining traces of the pandemic in an otherwise normal setting.
Another thing that might change is a reduction in the number of COVID-19 tests taken and available. We all know the hassles of trying to get tested: wait times, potential costs and the risk of exposure to those who might actually have the virus whilst at the testing clinic.
But, if we begin to live with COVID-19, then there won’t be many incentives to get tested at all, unless you feel sick.
Finally, colleges might become less flexible in their modes of instruction as universities would no longer have an incentive to offer virtual or hybrid options to students.
With these things considered, should we give up trying to beat COVID-19 and just accept it as another part of life?
There are many arguments that can be made for either side, but if infection rates don’t see a dramatic rise, then it might not be a bad idea to acknowledge that the virus is here for good. We could resume our lives for the simple logic that if we can’t ever beat COVID-19 within a reasonable timeframe — is it really worth continuing to try?
And with studies showing that the omicron variant isn’t as severe as other high transmission variants, returning to normal might not be the world-ending event that some worry about.
Another argument in the fight for normalcy is the fact that a lot of aspects of our lives are basically already "back to normal." There are already lots of people partying, clubbing, going to sporting events, traveling and more — all of which were considered unspeakable at the height of the pandemic.
Even if new restrictions or mandates were introduced, many won’t take heed of these precautions, especially those who feel that the virus won’t affect them. The timeline of the pandemic has demonstrated this — so many people either feel safe from being fully vaccinated or didn’t take the virus seriously from the onset.
However, America’s relatively low vaccination rate compared to European countries might not make such a plan feasible, since fewer people will be protected.
As European countries move forward, the future of COVID-19 policies in the U.S. and on college campuses remains uncertain. The return to normalcy, however, seems inevitable as UNC prepares to return to fully in-person instruction by mid-February.
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