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Sudden Impact / April 01, 2020
As we all hunker down because of the coronavirus and wonder what comes next, it’s worth keeping in mind that a forced economic shutdown is not the same as a recession or depression, except in one unavoidable respect — the impact. Workers, businesses and public institutions are suffering sharp losses of income as vast swaths of the U.S. are shuttered. Yet in these low moments, we at least have the solace of knowing these losses are by design, by choice, and not due to an underlying defect with the economy.

Which isn’t to say the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t revealed flaws in the great American system of market capitalism. Have our largest companies been remiss in prioritizing efficiency over redundancy, maintaining inventories that are just-in-time rather than just-in-case? Yes. You only need to read the news about our woeful shortages of protective medical supplies — masks, gowns, gloves and the like — and life-saving equipment such as ventilators to realize that the U.S. is woefully unprepared for a crush of desperately sick people from the pandemic.

Wuhan, China, where the virus first surfaced, is one of the world’s leading manufacturing sites for surgical masks. Instead of having an adequate national stockpile that we could tap as needed, the U.S. health care system is reduced to relying on quilting clubs for supplies of (decidedly sub-optimal) masks to keep nurses, doctors and caregivers safe. Let’s pause a moment here to thank our health care professionals for their heroic efforts to save lives and see the country through this current crisis. And let’s also hang our heads in shame that we ever allowed matters to get to the point where showing up for a work at the local hospital would require a leap of faith and devotion to duty in the face of preventable danger.

This is all nuts, an absolute national disgrace. In this respect — whereby no matter how bad you have it, it’s almost certain someone else has it worse — we should not be complaining about stay-at-home orders or quarantines, but embrace them. Something as simple as social distancing will save lives of people most at risk of the coronavirus, as well as those who by the nature of things must accept some level of exposure in order to preserve the social order. Health care providers deserve our appreciation, but so, too, do delivery drivers, cashiers, desk clerks, first responders, government employees and the vast number of people who keep essential businesses and institutions up and running. Expand the point of view, and the picture becomes clear — we’re all in this together.

Most people have embraced this simple truth. But then there are the folks who don’t — who scoff at the seriousness of this pandemic, or pay no attention to guidance on social distancing, hand-washing and other behaviors that save lives. If you are one of these people, please: Stop being a knucklehead. Consider what you’re doing. Do not be a public health menace. (Don’t be Jerry Falwell Jr.) Ignoring the urgent advisories of health departments and the Centers for Disease Control is the kind of thing that will get people killed — maybe someone you know, or maybe just you.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the pandemic death toll in the United States had risen to 3,440 people, a jump of 700 in a day’s time. At the rate the virus is spreading, we’ll be lucky if the final death toll in the U.S. doesn’t exceed six figures. A million or more deaths is not inconceivable. Is it possible the crisis will peter out? Of course. But as matters now stand, the U.S. is on a more worrying trajectory than Italy, where the misery of the coronavirus has been off the charts. To keep the same thing from happening here, we know what we’ve got to do. Shutting down public life is a big step. No one likes doing any of it, but no one has a better approach for blunting the pandemic. So we all know what has to happen. For as long as it takes.

How long? If only one could say. At The Atlantic (, where many excellent pieces on the pandemic have been published, there’s an excellent overview of the past, present and future of the coronavirus that is well worth the long read. In “How The Pandemic Will End,” (March 25, 2020), author Ed Yong covers an enormous amount of territory — the testing failures that have blinded us to the virus’ spread, the short-term and long-term effects of the ensuing economic crash, the comparisons between the U.S. and other nations that have been laid low by the pandemic. My favorite part comes toward the very end, when Yong writes this:

Aspects of America’s identity may need rethinking after COVID-19. Many of the country’s values have seemed to work against it during the pandemic. Its individualism, exceptionalism, and tendency to equate doing whatever you want with an act of resistance meant that when it came time to save lives and stay indoors, some people flocked to bars and clubs. Having internalized years of anti-terrorism messaging following 9/11, Americans resolved to not live in fear. But SARS-CoV-2 has no interest in their terror, only their cells.

Years of isolationist rhetoric had consequences too. Citizens who saw China as a distant, different place, where bats are edible and authoritarianism is acceptable, failed to consider that they would be next or that they wouldn’t be ready. (China’s response to this crisis had its own problems, but that’s for another time.) “People believed the rhetoric that containment would work,” says Wendy Parmet, who studies law and public health at Northeastern University. “We keep them out, and we’ll be okay. When you have a body politic that buys into these ideas of isolationism and ethnonationalism, you’re especially vulnerable when a pandemic hits.”

Veterans of past epidemics have long warned that American society is trapped in a cycle of panic and neglect. After every crisis—anthrax, SARS, flu, Ebola—attention is paid and investments are made. But after short periods of peacetime, memories fade and budgets dwindle. This trend transcends red and blue administrations. When a new normal sets in, the abnormal once again becomes unimaginable. But there is reason to think that COVID-19 might be a disaster that leads to more radical and lasting change.

The other major epidemics of recent decades either barely affected the U.S. (SARS, MERS, Ebola), were milder than expected (H1N1 flu in 2009), or were mostly limited to specific groups of people (Zika, HIV). The COVID-19 pandemic, by contrast, is affecting everyone directly, changing the nature of their everyday life. That distinguishes it not only from other diseases, but also from the other systemic challenges of our time. When an administration prevaricates on climate change, the effects won’t be felt for years, and even then it will be hard to parse. It’s different when a president says that everyone can get a test, and one day later, everyone cannot. Pandemics are democratizing experiences. People whose privilege and power would normally shield them from a crisis are facing quarantines, testing positive, and losing loved ones. Senators are falling sick. The consequences of defunding public-health agencies, losing expertise, and stretching hospitals are no longer manifesting as angry opinion pieces, but as faltering lungs.

… The lessons that America draws from this experience are hard to predict, especially at a time when online algorithms and partisan broadcasters only serve news that aligns with their audience’s preconceptions. Such dynamics will be pivotal in the coming months, says Ilan Goldenberg, a foreign-policy expert at the Center for a New American Security. “The transitions after World War II or 9/11 were not about a bunch of new ideas,” he says. “The ideas are out there, but the debates will be more acute over the next few months because of the fluidity of the moment and willingness of the American public to accept big, massive changes.”


Back to the big question looming over the here and now: Will deaths in the U.S. top 200,000, or 2 million — the estimates that have the most currency in the news right now? A toll as low as 50,000 seems like almost too much to ask, given how fast the numbers are shooting up across America (and in Virginia.) You don’t have to spend a lot of time on Facebook to find people pooh-poohing the impact of 50,000 deaths, comparing that morbid statistic to annual highway fatalities or the number of people struck down by seasonal flu. Here’s a different metric we’ll be lucky to come away with, should it happen: 58,000. That’s roughly the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. Does anyone want to argue Vietnam was no big deal?

Be safe out there. To be continued ….

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