|A coronavirus testing line at Elmhurst Hopsital in Queens, NY|
The coronavirus pandemic is believed to have originated at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China. But how is it likely to end? Ed Young, a science writer at The Atlantic, provides deep insights into that question, but his projections are not likely to please many Americans.
After interviewing more than a dozen public-health experts and consulting a wealth of academic and governmental reports on the pandemic, Young reached these sobering bottom-line conclusions: The coronavirus outbreak probably will upend American life for at least a year, and it will be followed by clusters of mental-health problems for those who are fortunate enough to survive the virus itself.
First, our health-care system has weaknesses, which have been exacerbated by incompetence in the Trump White House. And if the president decides to abandon social-distancing measures, there is no telling how bad things might get. Writes Young:
With little room to surge during a crisis, America’s health-care system operates on the assumption that unaffected states can help beleaguered ones in an emergency. That ethic works for localized disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, but not for a pandemic that is now in all 50 states. Cooperation has given way to competition; some worried hospitals have bought out large quantities of supplies, in the way that panicked consumers have bought out toilet paper.
Partly, that’s because the White House is a ghost town of scientific expertise. A pandemic-preparedness office that was part of the National Security Council was dissolved in 2018. On January 28, Luciana Borio, who was part of that team, urged the government to “act now to prevent an American epidemic,” and specifically to work with the private sector to develop fast, easy diagnostic tests. But with the office shuttered, those warnings were published in The Wall Street Journal, rather than spoken into the president’s ear. Instead of springing into action, America sat idle.
A recent analysis from the University of Pennsylvania estimated that even if social-distancing measures can reduce infection rates by 95 percent, 960,000 Americans will still need intensive care. There are only about 180,000 ventilators in the U.S. and, more pertinently, only enough respiratory therapists and critical-care staff to safely look after 100,000 ventilated patients. Abandoning social distancing would be foolish. Abandoning it now, when tests and protective equipment are still scarce, would be catastrophic.
If Trump stays the course, if Americans adhere to social distancing, if testing can be rolled out, and if enough masks can be produced, there is a chance that the country can still avert the worst predictions about COVID-19, and at least temporarily bring the pandemic under control. No one knows how long that will take, but it won’t be quick. “It could be anywhere from four to six weeks to up to three months,” Fauci said, “but I don’t have great confidence in that range.”
What are the country's options? Young spells them out and points to the best one:
Even a perfect response won’t end the pandemic. As long as the virus persists somewhere, there’s a chance that one infected traveler will reignite fresh sparks in countries that have already extinguished their fires. This is already happening in China, Singapore, and other Asian countries that briefly seemed to have the virus under control. Under these conditions, there are three possible endgames: one that’s very unlikely, one that’s very dangerous, and one that’s very long.
The first is that every nation manages to simultaneously bring the virus to heel, as with the original SARS in 2003. Given how widespread the coronavirus pandemic is, and how badly many countries are faring, the odds of worldwide synchronous control seem vanishingly small.
The second is that the virus does what past flu pandemics have done: It burns through the world and leaves behind enough immune survivors that it eventually struggles to find viable hosts. This “herd immunity” scenario would be quick, and thus tempting. But it would also come at a terrible cost: SARS-CoV-2 is more transmissible and fatal than the flu, and it would likely leave behind many millions of corpses and a trail of devastated health systems. The United Kingdom initially seemed to consider this herd-immunity strategy, before backtracking when models revealed the dire consequences. The U.S. now seems to be considering it too.
The third scenario is that the world plays a protracted game of whack-a-mole with the virus, stamping out outbreaks here and there until a vaccine can be produced. This is the best option, but also the longest and most complicated.
No. 3 might be the best option, but it comes with plenty of uncertainty and pain for everyday Americans. Here is how Young summarizes:
It’s likely, then, that the new coronavirus will be a lingering part of American life for at least a year, if not much longer. If the current round of social-distancing measures works, the pandemic may ebb enough for things to return to a semblance of normalcy. Offices could fill and bars could bustle. Schools could reopen and friends could reunite. But as the status quo returns, so too will the virus. This doesn’t mean that society must be on continuous lockdown until 2022. But “we need to be prepared to do multiple periods of social distancing,” says Stephen Kissler of Harvard.
The aftermath could be grim, too. Writes Young:
After infections begin ebbing, a secondary pandemic of mental-health problems will follow. At a moment of profound dread and uncertainty, people are being cut off from soothing human contact. Hugs, handshakes, and other social rituals are now tinged with danger. People with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder are struggling. Elderly people, who are already excluded from much of public life, are being asked to distance themselves even further, deepening their loneliness. Asian people are suffering racist insults, fueled by a president who insists on labeling the new coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” Incidents of domestic violence and child abuse are likely to spike as people are forced to stay in unsafe homes. Children, whose bodies are mostly spared by the virus, may endure mental trauma that stays with them into adulthood.
The saddest part of all this: We knew it was coming. But the president who promised to "Make America Great Again" has proven to be anything but great in the face of a crisis:
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”