Some Thoughts on the Present Moment

In a crisis like this, some people only want to escape it as much as they can. Others want to learn and try to come to grips with it. Neither way of coping is better than the other; it’s just a matter of what works for you. This post is for those in the latter group. If you’re in the former, scroll on past.

The terrible paradox of the moment is that we is that we are inundated with facts but have so little useful information. Anyone can obsessively refresh a counter and watch the numbers of cases and deaths go up, hour after hour, day after day, but those numbers, while tragic and horrifying, don’t tell the full story, because they can’t. Some of the increase is just the fact that we’re testing more people, but we still don’t have the kind of testing capacity to know what percentage of cases we’re identifying. This, in turn, limits efforts to determine crucial factors like how rapidly the virus spreads and what hospitalization and mortality rates look like. On the global scale, it doesn’t help that certain authoritarian countries may be under-reporting cases and deaths in a ghoulish effort to appear in control, but in a crisis like this, even countries that are trying to be transparent aren’t always going to provide adequate data.

The shift in how we live has been so rapid that it feels strange not to know more by now, but the reality is that in the United States the response to this crisis is just beginning. The increases we’re seeing now are the results of infections that happened before social distancing and shutdowns went into effect. It’ll be several days more at least before any curve-flattening is visible. Certain impatient politicians who think leading a country is like marketing a golf course might want to have to it all over by Easter, but Easter is unlikely to be the end, and more likely to be the end of the beginning. By then much of the country will have three weeks’ worth of data from increased testing and three weeks’ worth of limited transmission thanks to social distancing. Then, we can start thinking about how to be more tactical and less universal in our efforts to combat the virus. It’s not going to be as simple as there being one single moment when everyone everywhere can “go back to normal.” That’s a lovely image, but this isn’t a war, and there’s not going to be a V-COVID-19 Day.

I’ve said all along that people shouldn’t be panicking. But we should be prepared for bad outcomes, so that they’re less shocking if they do come. In New York, where about half of all US cases are located, the hospital system is badly strained. If cases continue to surge there, it could overwhelm the system, which is what leads to higher death tolls. When there aren’t enough resources, people die whose lives might have been saved. Now, it’s not guaranteed that that will happen. The authorities are working to bring new supplies in, professionals are improvising alternatives, and new technologies are being developed. Retirees and other volunteers are coming in to take up the slack. People are working hard, and they should keep working hard, and the rest of us should honor them for it. But there’s only so much they can do. And because we have no way to know how many cases tomorrow will bring, we have no way of knowing how close they are having to make ghastly decisions about who lives and who dies.

The most important thing to remember, whether that happens or not, is that where we are, right now, on the precipice, is the result of infections that happened before ordinary Americans had really begun to grasp what was going on. It doesn’t take much time for a pandemic to create an enormous burden on our hospital system. The people who are making noise about “the cure being worse than the disease” are acting as though there was some moment at which we had a choice between an economic crisis and a public health crisis. We were always going to have both. We had the choice of waiting until the virus was everywhere and millions of people were sick, which would have completely collapsed the social order and wrecked the economy, or grinding the economy to a halt in the hope of keeping people alive and healthy. That’s never going to be an easy choice, but economic crises are less difficult to address than health ones; you can stimulate an economy with legislation, but there’s no law that will bring the dead back to life.
If, as I hope will happen, we begin to see evidence in the coming weeks that this crisis is winding down in the United States without becoming apocalyptic, there will be those who will say, “We wrecked the economy for nothing.” (Or, more likely, they’ll say “YOU wrecked the economy for nothing,” and point at their political enemies.) But that’s like a child who, having been told to tie her shoes because she’ll trip and break her neck, ties them, then complains at the end of the day that she never even fell over. Precautions always look ridiculous, until you see what can happen if you ignore them. I don’t think that will happen here, but I do worry about how people will react if there’s another pandemic a few years down the line, or if this coronavirus dies down now, then makes a comeback later in the year. But that’s a concern for the future. For now, we wait, we watch the numbers without reading too much into them, we stay safe, and we take care of each other.

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