The pandemic and the miracle of adaptation

All over the world, except in China, countries are dismantling the restrictive barriers they have put up against the COVID-19 pandemic — massive lockdowns, school and office closures, travel restrictions, etc. Even mask mandates have been lifted. Not because they believe the pandemic is over, but precisely because they expect this virus and its variants to be around for some time.

Rather than aim for its total elimination as in China’s zero-COVID policy, they are convinced that the more realistic objective is to coexist with it. This basically means managing the harm it may inflict with every surge in infections, rather than placing social life on hold until complete victory over the virus is achieved.

The precise word for this is “adaptation” — the way in which complex systems (e.g., human societies and immune systems) “change their behavior to improve their chances of survival or success—through learning or evolutionary processes.” (“Complexity: A Guided Tour,” Melanie Mitchell, 2009)

The techniques associated with adaptation are sometimes called “emergent,” and the complex systems from which they arise “self-organizing.” These terms are meant to bring home the point that such phenomena are not the product of “an internal or external controller or leader.” Rather, they emerge from the slow processes of learning and evolution.

The first two years of this ongoing pandemic have undoubtedly been a tremendous learning experience for all of humanity. For the most part, I think we can agree that compared to that early period, when we were all still grappling with questions about how it is transmitted, how it attaches itself to human cells and multiplies, what short-term and long-term damage it inflicts on various organs of the human body, and how it mutates — we now have enough information about this pathogen to be able to plot more confidently the future course it may take and to treat the disease it causes.

By the same token, we can only suppose that the human body’s complex immune system is in a much better position today to mount an effective defensive response to this deadly virus than during those early months when the SARS-CoV-2 nimbly avoided the armies of lymphocytes mobilized against it. The body knows better now; it has seen the enemy and remembers how it moves.

This natural defense system has been reinforced by the vaccines, enabling it to deal with deadlier versions of the virus and preventing infections from resulting in severe disease. We don’t know for sure how much the body’s reinforced immune system is capable of fighting the new variants, given that there are no vaccines yet specifically customized for Omicron.

But, as crucial as are the efforts of the scientific community to understand the full complexity of our immune system and how it fights the pathogen and the disease associated with it, there is a need to understand what works and what does not work in the equally complex social organism we call society. The past two years will have taught us important lessons in societal adaptation to pandemics. It is time we had candid and open discussions about what we have learned so far, and how we have evolved as a community throughout this time.

Only by bringing these out into the open, without recrimination, can we profit collectively from this crisis. We might begin with a few questions:

In the face of a global public health emergency, did we respond fast enough to secure our borders? How important is border control?

Were there no alternatives to massive lockdowns of entire cities and provinces?

Was it necessary to close down all schools and offices, and ban all nonessential economic activity?

Were there better ways of organizing testing, contact-tracing, and quarantines?

Could the use of cheaper rapid antigen tests, combined with home isolation and the distribution of basic treatment packs, have been a better response than requiring expensive RT-PCR tests and the compulsory isolation of positive cases in government facilities?

Before we quickly pass judgment, I would like to note that in my own limited reading of different approaches to the pandemic, I have not encountered any instance where a country’s public health authorities could claim that they got it right from the start. In all instances, the solutions and responses gradually evolved as governments and citizens alike learned to adapt to the myriad challenges posed by the pandemic.

Three things, however, appear to stand out as essential to this learning and adaptation process. The first is the implicit trust between the authorities and the community. The more successful ones consistently regarded their citizens as partners rather than as recalcitrant elements requiring discipline. The second is the existence of a feedback mechanism through which events and consequences on the ground are reported and quickly acted upon. And third is the belief in the capacity of communities to self-organize and help themselves.

Lessons like these are worth keeping in mind as we begin the process of reopening our schools and returning to face-to-face classes. This is not a simple return to what was there before. Indeed, I cannot think of a decision by the new administration that is more complex than this. Its correctness can only be assured by openness to feedback and readiness to change course when needed.