When will life return to pre-pandemic normal?

The answer at this point is, when public officials permit it to. (Before the vaccines were available, life would not have returned to pre-pandemic normal even without the various mandates because many people would have taken at least some of these precautions on their own.)

But when will public officials permit life to return to pre-pandemic normal? I think the answer depends on whether the new variants of the original Wuhan virus turn out to cause an appreciably high rate of deaths among the vaccinated. Stated differently, it depends on whether the variants are killing folks at something like the rate the Wuhan version was doing pre-vaccines or more like the rate that ordinary flus do.

If the former, we can expect authorities to insist that life not return to normal. We can also expect that, even absent mandates, many people will take precautions they didn’t take pre-pandemic.

But if the vaccines are effective in sharply limiting deaths and very serious illnesses among the vaccinated (as seems to be the case so far), it would be irrational to mandate (or voluntarily take) the precautionary measures imposed in response to the pandemic. The government doesn’t mandate masks and closures as a means of preventing the flu. Why should it mandate such measures against coronavirus variants that aren’t significantly more lethal than the flu? (I’ll consider one possible answer below.)

Some governments might issue mandates even if it’s irrational to do so. But these mandates probably won’t stick. There are limits to the degree to which vaccinated people are willing to keep behaving the ways they did during the height of the pandemic to protect people who choose not to be vaccinated. Public officials eventually will have to relent if they wish to remain public officials.

There is, however, an arguably rational argument as to why vaccinated people should try to limit the spread of the virus to people who aren’t vaccinated — in other words, why they should cooperate in trying to eliminate this virus and variants, rather than accepting it as just another sickness.

The argument is that as long as the virus persists, it will continue to mutate — to produce new variants. The current variants may not be appreciably lethal for those who are vaccinated, but the new variants might be. Thus, it’s important to reduce the number of cases to something approaching zero.

There are at least two problems with this argument, though. First, the argument is highly speculative. Anything is possible. However, it’s my understanding that mutations generally produce less lethal forms of viruses and bacteria. If so, the likelihood of more lethal variants emerging is low.

Second, it’s probably unrealistic to think that, even with masks, lockdowns, and vaccines, we can keep the number of new cases at a level that precludes mutations. If preventing mutations is the rationale for imposing limits on what people can and cannot do, I think the burden is on those pushing this rationale to show that (1) more lethal variants are likely to emerge through mutations and (2) the imposition of limits will prevent or significantly limit mutations.

I doubt that scientists can make such a showing. I also doubt that public officials can sell this rationale for years-on-end as a justification for keeping us from returning to pre-pandemic normal.

But who really knows?