In a newly released interview, historian and author Niall Ferguson said that if the novel coronavirus remains a permanent part of American life it would fundamentally shift the way people interact with one another, comparing the change to a revolution in sexual health awareness that followed the emergence of HIV/AIDS.
“In that scenario, we don't have a post-COVID-19 era, we have an era with COVID-19 because it goes from pandemic to endemic, we get to live with it, much as we've had to learn to live with HIV/AIDS,” says Ferguson, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Hoover Institution, based at Stanford University.
“I would argue that in that scenario it will be to social life what HIV/AIDS was to sexual life,” he added in a conversation with Yahoo Finance on May 14. “It will require permanent changes of behavior, and we will find it difficult to make those changes.”
Some epidemiologists have said the coronavirus may be here to stay — an endemic disease like measles, chickenpox, and HIV/AIDS, the Washington Post reported. The experts told the Washington Post that Americans should accept that possibility in order to take steps that would minimize ongoing health risks, the report found.
That outlook contradicts statements by President Donald Trump, who earlier this month announced an ambitious effort to discover a vaccine and manufacture hundreds of millions of doses by the end of this year. Even if scientists fail to develop a vaccine, the coronavirus will eventually disappear, Trump said upon the announcement, without citing evidence to support the claim.
“If we don’t, we’re going to be like so many other cases where you had a problem come in. It’ll go away at some point,” he said.
Public health experts have criticized the feasibility of Trump’s accelerated vaccine initiative.
Americans will dramatically change their day-to-day lives if it doesn’t appear that a vaccine or effective therapy can protect them from the virus, Ferguson said.
“There'll be reluctance to go out and be in crowds of any sort at all,” he says. People will “also be afraid or nervous even of interactions with their neighbors under those conditions.”
As U.S. coronavirus cases have begun to follow a downward trajectory, all states have started loosening their restrictions. The Trump administration released a set of conditions for coronavirus containment last month that it recommends states meet before they reopen, including a 14-day downward trajectory in new cases or positive test rates.
So far, most states have failed to meet all of the White House conditions for reopening, according to ProPublica.
Ferguson made the remarks in an episode of Yahoo Finance’s “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.
Since 2016, Ferguson has worked as a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He served as a professor of history at Harvard University for 12 years prior, and has published 15 books, most recently “The Square and the Tower.”
Ferguson presented a second, comparatively optimistic scenario in which scientists quickly develop a vaccine as well as effective treatments. In that case, the U.S. could largely return to normalcy within a couple years, he said.
“Let's look at a nice future where this happens, somebody has a breakthrough. And then in the course of next year, this vaccine becomes widely available,” he says. “Maybe also, there are some therapies that come online that help people who get them get sick.”
“By this time next year, we won't be probably over this, but we'll certainly feel that the end is near, and that we won't be dealing with many of the problems that we've been through in 2022,” he adds.