Americans are daydreaming a return to normal, eyeing the calendar—May? Maybe June?—as if a switch will get flicked and the coronavirus pandemic and its life-altering impact will fade to memory.
That’s not happening.
I don’t say that to frighten—and I’ve never wished so hard to be proved wrong—but we’re a culture easily sold false hope. We buy up optimism when reality is too much to bear.
Those tendencies don’t position us well for a global pandemic.
What we need now is neither false hope nor optimism—it’s pragmatism, and facts.
The coronavirus pandemic is going to shake America this week, and for weeks and months to come. The number of confirmed cases, the number of deaths, will hit like a fist to the country’s gut.
It will become harder and harder to find anyone who doesn’t know a friend, or a friend of a friend, who’s sick. It will become harder and harder to find anyone who doesn’t know someone who has lost a friend or loved one.
That somber news will transmit through Facebook posts and texts, emails and phone calls. It will hurt, even if you and your immediate family remain healthy.
It needs to hurt. It needs to worry people. Because I don’t believe most Americans have accepted the long haul that lies ahead.
Over the weekend I spoke with Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist and infectious disease control specialist formerly with the World Health Organization and now head of the global anti-violence group Cure Violence, which is based in Chicago.
“We’re going to be really shaken up,” he said. “There hasn’t been a hit this country has taken like this. 9/11 is nothing compared to this, really.”
Slutkin has had a long career, working through a tuberculosis outbreak in San Francisco and the AIDS crisis in Africa before turning his attention to the disease-like spread of violence in Chicago and elsewhere. He’s now spending much of his time working on the coronavirus outbreak, trying like so many experts in this field to get political leaders to see the seriousness of the issue and deliver a clear message.
That message would be: Shut everything that’s nonessential down.
“What you have to do is overdo it,” Slutkin said. “You have to overdo it in your own behavior. There isn’t a compromise. If you feel like, ‘Oh, I’ll just go out this one time or we’ll just get together for a couple hours,’ that won’t work. You have to really overdo it in terms of staying away from people other than those you live with. If you feel like you’re overdoing it, that’s the right feeling. If you feel like you’re overdoing it, overdo it more, and you still won’t be overdoing it.”
That’s because the only way to slow the spread of this virus is to stop its transmission.
There is no miracle drug, despite what some are telling you. A vaccine isn’t coming soon. And there remains no concrete evidence that the warmer months will halt the virus’ spread.
Harvard University epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch recently wrote: “The short answer is that while we may expect modest declines in the contagiousness of [the novel coronavirus] in warmer, wetter weather and perhaps with the closing of schools in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, it is not reasonable to expect these declines alone to slow transmission enough to make a big dent.”
And remember, when infectious disease experts such as Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, talk about “flattening the curve,” they’re talking only about reducing the number of new cases of COVID-19 to a point the country’s medical system can handle. The total number of cases is still increasing, just at a slower rate.
Asked whether the U.S. is getting the outbreak under control, Fauci told CBS News on Sunday: “That would be a false statement. We are struggling to get it under control, and that’s the issue that’s at hand right now.”
An end to social distancing and shelter-in-
place restrictions isn’t coming anytime soon. For a splash of cold water to the face, I’ll ask you this: “Given what we know already and what we’re seeing each day, when do you think you’ll feel comfortable going to a restaurant or movie theater? When will you feel comfortable putting your child on a school bus?”
Slutkin put it this way: “At what point of there being new cases and new deaths per day are people going to feel like they’re fine going to concerts or going to ballgames? If you’re in Chicago and there were 20 cases a day or 50 cases, what is the point where you feel just fine? Right now, everything’s going up everywhere. There isn’t any place that’s going down.”
He said if everyone behaved perfectly nationwide—no contact with people you don’t live with— for two weeks, the country could turn a corner. But even then, the problem isn’t fixed. It’s just stalled.
“The world is going to be different,” Slutkin said. “Socially, we’re going to be different, economically we’re going to be different. I think there will be waves of things getting better and waves of things getting worse as we find our way.”
And we will find our way. We will adapt, and overcome.
But now is not the time for sunny optimism. It’s the time for science and pragmatism.
The sooner Americans accept that “normal” is nowhere in sight—and that normal may look quite different when we get there—the better we’ll all be.
Again, I hope I’m proven wrong. But for now, better a pessimist who is pleasantly surprised than a fool who makes things worse.
Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.