COVID-19: ‘It didn’t need to be this bad’
With Omicron sweeping the globe, the WHO’s COVID-19 lead, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, has spent the past weeks tirelessly issuing urgent guidance for nations facing rapidly rising virus caseloads. The new variant is just the latest challenge in an extremely demanding two years for one of the globe’s leading experts on coronaviruses.
Alarm bells began ringing for Maria during the 2019 holiday season. They haven’t stopped since. Back then, the epidemiologist’s Christmas break was interrupted by news of a cluster of pneumonia patients in China caused by mysterious virus that was about to turn the world on its head.
Red flags went up immediately, Maria told me when we met on my podcast, Awake At Night. So little was known about the new virus, but all of it was concerning. Her alarm was echoed in back-to-back meetings with fellow scientists. They were all buzzing with unanswered questions.
Maria, who had been heading up the response to the respiratory disease MERS at the World Health Organization (WHO), was tasked with setting global COVID guidance. Life quickly became a whirlwind of meetings, strategy discussions and press conferences. It has barely let up.
Back then, with alarm rising, Maria and her team quickly put the world on red alert. It was clear that the fast-spreading virus had the potential to cause a pandemic. But only few nations heeded the warnings, Maria says, understandably frustrated. Far more failed to take the threat seriously.
“That hubris and that arrogance of many countries, unfortunately, I think, really set the world on a path that didn’t necessarily need to happen,” she told me. “It’s really easy to say what may have happened. But I don’t think it needed to be this bad. It didn’t.”
Our failure to tackle the virus early, with strict contact tracing and quarantine, means COVID is far more widespread — with far more casualties — than it might have been, Maria says. Yet as we move into a third year of the pandemic, she insists we have the power to subdue the virus if we want to.
And she is giving her all to do just that. Maria’s days are long, but she squeezes in as much time as she can with her young boys. The eldest, who had just turned nine when COVID hit, has been desperately worried about Maria’s safety during the pandemic, especially when she has to travel.
In February 2020, when she went to China for work, her son was convinced she wouldn’t come home. Maria told me about a heart-breaking picture of him crying while looking at a picture of her while she was away. She is glad she didn’t see it at the time. It would have been too painful.
Losing time with family is a big sacrifice, for anyone. Maria has made it with grace, her eyes fixed on the goal of ending the pandemic. She knows we can do more to drive down transmission with the tools we have, from getting vaccines into more arms, to improving ventilation in public places.
There are likely more dark times ahead, yet Maria remains hopeful. Pandemics end, and COVID will too, though how soon is up to all of us. Even then, the work will be far from over. The world must be better prepared for the next pandemic and rapidly invest in health infrastructure and surveillance.
In the meantime, Maria says we can all play a role in keeping ourselves and our families safe. The WHO is asking all of us to remain vigilant over the holidays. We must all think carefully about our choices. There will be tough discussions, and agonizing decisions, in many families this Christmas.
“People should say: ‘OK, if we’re going to do this, let’s work out how can we do this as safely as possible,’” Maria said in a recent interview. “We have choices, and our choices have consequences. Don’t give the virus the opportunity to thrive.”