“The pandemic is over.” When “60 Minutes” aired on Sunday night, President Biden shocked viewers by declaring an end to the covid-19 pandemic. How could a disease that has caused over 6.5 million deaths worldwide and continues to kill hundreds of Americans each day — even amid a recent push for more booster vaccines — be considered “over”? The backlash against Biden was immediate and expected. The practice of a leader declaring an end to a pandemic — as if their words have the power to will contagion out of existence if they declare its conclusion — is not new. But sometimes such declarations prove to be premature, leading to relaxation of preventive measures and the unwillingness to take essential actions to prevent the next pandemic.
From the earliest pandemics in the American colonies, leaders have declared them over. For example, 300 years ago, a smallpox epidemic concluded in Boston. Like most epidemics in the 18th century, it was sparked when a ship arrived with sick sailors, leading to a major outbreak in the spring of 1721. Smallpox spread, infecting approximately 6,000 inhabitants (out of a population of nearly 11,000) and leading to almost 850 deaths before its “end” in February 1722.
Hastening its end was a project of inoculation. Knowledge that inoculation could prevent the mortality of smallpox came from an enslaved servant of the Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather. Soon the local Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, a supporter of inoculation, and Dr. William Douglass, a denier of the process, were battling to be heard by the public. As the epidemic infected at least one member of nearly every household in Boston, Boylston and Douglass fought over the best way to prevent more deaths. Soon Boylston had inoculated about 280 people.
In the 18th century, the end to an epidemic was one that was felt abruptly by city inhabitants. The disease had run swiftly through the local population, infecting — and in about 14 percent of cases, actually killing — anyone who was susceptible. With the speed of infections like smallpox, the disease would fizzle out when it had killed everyone it could and herd immunity had finally built up. In Boston, the decline of infections led to townspeople assuming the epidemic was over.
On Feb. 24, 1722, a town selectman shared with the city that no new cases of smallpox had been found that day, declaring it to be the official end of the epidemic. Many of Boston’s citizens still had smallpox; the numbers were just in decline.
Boylston published a piece on the process of inoculation and news of the process spread across the colonies. Yet, the push to inoculate children to prevent a future outbreak was halted as people assumed the threat was over and lost interest. As a result, three more major outbreaks happened in Boston, the next in 1752.