How epidemics end

As COVID‐19 drags on and new vaccines promise widespread immunity, the world's attention has turned to predicting how the present pandemic will end. How do societies know when an epidemic is over and normal life can resume? What criteria and markers indicate such an end? Who has the insight, authority, and credibility to decipher these signs? Detailed research on past epidemics has demonstrated that they do not end suddenly; indeed, only rarely do the diseases in question actually end. This article examines the ways in which scholars have identified and described the end stages of previous epidemics, pointing out that significantly less attention has been paid to these periods than to origins and climaxes. Analysis of the ends of epidemics illustrates that epidemics are as much social, political, and economic events as they are biological; the “end,” therefore, is as much a process of social and political negotiation as it is biomedical. Equally important, epidemics end at different times for different groups, both within one society and across regions. Multidisciplinary research into how epidemics end reveals how the end of an epidemic shifts according to perspective, whether temporal, geographic, or methodological. A multidisciplinary analysis of how epidemics end suggests that epidemics should therefore be framed not as linear narratives—from outbreak to intervention to termination—but within cycles of disease and with a multiplicity of endings.