Stop declaring premature victory against coronavirus
Over the past week or so, the direst possible futures for the novel coronavirus pandemic have seemingly receded. Though the U.S. has by far the greatest number of confirmed cases of any country (at time of writing about 558,000 cases and 22,000 deaths, which are almost certainly drastic underestimates), a recent analysis from the University of Washington revised its estimate of the predicted total American death count down to "only" about 60,400.
This has led many to question the necessity of all the social-distancing and lockdown measures that are wreaking economic havoc. But while a possibly lower death count is certainly good news, it would be wildly premature to declare victory now. America is not even close to finished with the first wave of infection, and we have done almost nothing to prevent a second.
Let's deal with the idiots first. Fox News conservatives and pudding-brained contrarians like former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson have seized on the revised estimates to conclude the experts were wrong all along, and coronavirus is not as bad as they claimed. This is like a firefighter in a burning building saying that because his flesh has not been scorched off his bones, he can safely ditch all his fireproof gear. The researchers are clear that the estimated death toll has declined because all the lockdown measures have drastically cut the infection rate. The appalling failure of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio shows what happens to places that don't get on top of an outbreak quickly — they end up digging mass graves.
Furthermore, it is not at all clear yet that the U.S. has actually bent the infection curve across the country. While new cases and deaths have clearly slowed in New York, and were kept relatively under control in West Coast states, they are still rising fast in states like Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Texas. A case of COVID-19 takes a long time to proceed, and as Italy shows it will take weeks for the death rate to come down.
More importantly, all this leaves aside the possibility of a second wave of infection, which the University of Washington analysis simply does not consider. Conservatives, including President Trump, are implicitly arguing that since new infections and deaths seem to be on their way down, we can soon safely abandon the lockdown measures. But unless the disease is totally eradicated (which is vanishingly unlikely), that is almost certain to create another galloping epidemic.
As I have argued before, other countries demonstrate that re-opening society could probably be done if the federal government could set up a giant test-and-track apparatus that could root out infected people, and quarantine them and anyone they've been in contact with. (If it can be demonstrated that people with antibodies are permanently immune, those people might be set loose.) Or as economist Paul Romer suggests, it could possibly be done if 7 percent of the entire population was tested at random every day, and positive cases quarantined — meaning every person would be tested roughly every two weeks.
But America is not remotely close to being able to do anything like that. We would need hundreds of millions of tests, or billions in the latter case. Instead, Trump has affirmed there will be no such mass testing, and his administration is already cutting back funding for testing centers. And setting aside the intrusive surveillance and coercion necessary to force people to submit to tests, this would require competent federal logistics and administration that are nowhere in evidence. This is a country run by a game show dullard that struggles mightily to hand out free money because it has no idea where tens of millions of its citizens live.
All that said, there are still several big question marks about how this virus really works. A rough Economist analysis suggested that it might be enormously more contagious than previously thought — implying that a much greater proportion of the population had been infected without ever showing any symptoms, and thus might have a much lower fatality rate. On the other hand, a small study in China of recovered COVID-19 patients found that almost a third had low levels of antibodies, and some had none at all — suggesting a possible risk of reinfection, or that a vaccine might not work for some people.
We need a great deal more study and data to have a clear picture of what we're up against. In the meantime, countries with a functioning national government will be forced to do the best they can as research develops.
Unfortunately, the United States effectively has no national government. Even aside from Trump, the rest of the Republican Party simply does not have the competence or intellectual honesty to be able to handle something like COVID-19. Given conservatives' political neuroses, they find it much more comforting to deny bad news, or blame Democrats and the media, or seize on quack snake oil fixes, or all three. In any case they couldn't stand up an efficient nationwide virus-tracking bureaucracy if their lives depended on it.
The president oscillates randomly between pretending to take the virus seriously, blaming everyone but himself for what is happening, and demanding the lockdown measures be removed so he can make the numbers go back up. We've already been through the whole cycle several times. Unless herd immunity turns out to be miraculously much easier to get, or a vaccine is developed, that will be America's coronavirus future for the rest of the year at least.
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