Are We There Yet?

Back on St. Patrick’s Day, when the emergency was clanging down on us (it must be really dire to close the bars for St. Patrick’s Day!), I took the semi-wild guess that the emergency would last between six and eight weeks.  Now that we’re about halfway through, I’m contemplating how the emergency might end.

Three scenarios come to mind.  But before I examine them, I’ll share some basic assumptions:

  • Whatever the virus’s origins, it is now a force of nature, and will not take instructions from us.
  • Its spread cannot be stopped, only moderated.
  • In the long term, it will become part of the biological landscape.  It cannot be mopped up and sent back to China.

With that in mind:

Scenario One: Flatten the Curve and Be Done with It

If we take the premise that this business of shutting everything down was merely to ‘flatten the curve’ and prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed, then in another 3-5 weeks, the number of new cases should be small enough that we can start easing the restrictions.

We can let most businesses open, including (perhaps especially!) restaurants, although large public gatherings like sporting events and rock concerts will still have to wait.  I’d hope for at least Minor League Baseball (with its smaller venues) this summer.

We can expect testing of sample populations to get a better handle on how the virus has already spread.  However, the decision would necessarily be a judgement call, and entail some measure of risk.  Also, while the testing and setting of guidelines may be Federal endeavors, the restrictions we have now are set on the state level, and will have to be released the same way.  That’s how we’re set up in our republic.

The virus will indeed spread more readily when restrictions are eased: there will be an increase in the number of new cases, and some people will die as a result, who wouldn’t have died under the other scenarios (at least not from Covid).  But because many more people will have already been exposed, the increase will be more modest.

Scenario Two: Test Everyone

If we deem the risk of more new cases to be unacceptable, the next approach would be to test the entire population so that the virus can be tracked absolutely.  This would be a vast enterprise and would take at least 3-4 months.

I’m also not clear on what would happen.  Since I haven’t been seriously ill since the beginning of 2018, if I were tested, I’d expect one of two results:

  • I’m negative.  Would that mean that I’d remain under the quasi-lockdown while others got back to work?  Given the choice, I’d prefer to go forth in the world and take my chances.
  • I have antibodies, which means that I’ve been exposed, but haven’t gotten sick:  I had a brief but nasty bout with flu-like symptoms early in February.  I skipped a couple of gym sessions but otherwise held together.  Maybe that was Covid?  I don’t know.  In any case, if I’ve been exposed, the authorities would then presumably chase through my associates to see how I might have been exposed, or whom I might have exposed.

And what happens if I have antibodies and my wife is negative (or vice versa)?  Will one of us have to move out of the house so the other can be isolated?

The coronavirus is not Ebola.  It spreads rapidly, to the point where contact tracing—especially after the fact—is pointless and silly.  Attempting to trace anyway is also an invasion of our civil liberties.  And doing so sets the precedent for the next emergency (viral or otherwise).

After all, never let a crisis go to waste.

Scenario Three: Vaccinate

If we’re not willing to accept the risk of simply going back to business, and trying to track everyone’s status with the virus isn’t practical, then the third alternative is to wait for a vaccine.  In the very best case, a vaccine might be ready late this year or early next year.

But, given the choice, would I get vaccinated?  My wife and I don’t get flu shots, and from what I know now about coronavirus and Covid, I’d be genuinely reluctant to get a shot of a hastily-thrown-together brew of God knows what.  Then again, if the choice were to get the shot or stay locked up at home, that might be different.

I’ve reviewed the stay-at-home orders put forth by various communities, and they all, so far, admit going out for exercise while maintaining social distancing from others.  A new and improved version, to encourage vaccination, might reconsider this proviso, requiring the unvaccinated and unexposed to stay at home.

If it came to that, and we all decided to get the shot, the emergency would likely be over sometime next year.

But I don’t think we have a year.

I came across an interesting datum the other day.  Since the coronavirus crisis began, ridership on the New York subways is down 92%.  Crime in the subways is down… wait for it… by only 3%.  The people who earn their living through crime are presumably mostly young and healthy, still need to earn a living, and aren’t deterred by Uncle Andy telling them to stay home.

We’re only a little way into this emergency, and people aren’t desperate… yet.  But that will change after a couple of months.  Moreover, other people who aren’t desperate at that point will come to resent the government for continuing what appear to be unnecessary restrictions, and may want to take matters into their own hands.

If the emergency continues for more than a couple of months from now, I expect that there will be violence, first in the relatively small-scale crimes of the desperate, but getting worse.

A colleague sent me a meme about ending the emergency by Independence Day, 4 July.  That seems a practical threshold, as much for the meaning of Independence Day as for the time span between now and then.  If we are not back to enjoying our essential freedoms by Independence Day, we should presume that it will be a long, long wait.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I hope to God we end up following the first scenario.  We need our freedom and our dignity far more than we need some incremental (and more than likely illusory) safety.

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