As this magazine goes to press, the U.S. has passed its 1,000th officially tallied case of coronavirus infection. “Officially tallied” because it is very likely that there are far more cases that have not been counted. The total number of Americans tested by the beginning of this week stood at about 4,300. Are we even sure of that number? We are not, though it’s the best estimate that an excellent investigation in The Atlantic could get to. The reality is that we just don’t know. Some states have not released the number of tests they’ve done. The federal government has “walked back” (that’s the polite term) the claim that anybody who wants a test can get one. In about 1,000 cases, the U.S. has registered 30 deaths. Germany, meanwhile, has 1,575 cases and just two deaths. Does that mean it has a less virulent strain? Better treatment? Or—most likely—has it just done a better job of testing? Again, we don’t know. And without knowing how far the virus has spread, we are merely guessing at how to slow it.
When Covid-19 was first detected in Wuhan, the world got to sit back and criticize the Chinese regime’s obfuscation and denial. Now other countries are not doing any better. Iran has seen 23 members of its parliament infected, and two dead, even as it claims that the virus has hit only one Iranian in 9,000 or so. Maybe we should expect nothing better of Iran. But European democracies, too, are finding it impossible to tell how many cases they have. In Italy—which has now put in place a nationwide lockdown—the death toll of 631 points to many more infections than the country’s recorded 10,149. Right now, the U.S. count of cases and deaths stands roughly where Italy’s stood 11 days ago. There is no reason to be optimistic that the U.S. can do any better than Italy at stemming the spread of the virus. However little we know about the virus, we have a frighteningly good idea of where we are likely to be in 11 days.