IN THE UK, back in July, covid-19 cases had dropped so much that politicians spurred people to dine out to boost the economy. Citizens were told that restrictions on daily life would be over “in time for Christmas”. That didn’t happen.

Instead, as the northern summer ended, infections climbed, and kept on climbing despite complicated systems of protection levels and tiers, as did the number of people in hospitals. With hospitalisations now perilously high, nearly all parts of the UK are back under strict lockdown conditions.

Of course, the UK isn’t the only nation struggling with second or even third waves. Many countries that felt they were on top of the virus are now struggling to keep it suppressed. Vaccines should provide an escape route – new variants and any other surprises allowing. But as we have said many times on these pages, there are still hard yards ahead.

So why is this virus proving so difficult to deal with? Jonathan R. Goodman arguesthat it is because this virus is a riddle, on multiple levels. We can’t tell, by looking at someone, if they have it. We can’t tell, even with someone’s medical chart in our hands, how sick they will get from it. We are getting better at treating people who become seriously ill, but we can still only guess who will die, and why. And the greatest riddle is what we should do about it all.

“The time for underestimating the virus is over. The sooner we can get people vaccinated, the better”

Other diseases kill more of the people who are infected: MERS killed 33 per cent of those who caught the virus, SARS 10 per cent. Those sorts of death rates prompted unequivocal action from governments. But with this coronavirus, we are looking at a death rate of about 1 per cent. That opens the door to politicians and commentators getting wrapped up in cost-benefit analyses, agonising over impacts to economies and healthcare when contrasted against this relatively low death rate.

What should be clear now is that the time for underestimating the coronavirus is over. The sooner we can get people vaccinated, and stop this virus running around populations with unknown outcomes, the better. Until then, life cannot return to normal.