Trump’s guidelines are sensible. Responsibility for following the guidelines falls to localities: states, cities, counties, towns, businesses. Several states are ready to start opening up again today, Trump asserts. The federal government offers no scientific, technical, logistical, or financial support for implementing the guidelines. But hey, it could’ve been worse.
And it will get worse.
I just had a short chat — 15 feet apart — with my neighbor, out walking her dogs. She’s heard that the Southern states aren’t going to have it so bad. She believes that the worst is over. I disagreed — North Carolina hasn’t been hit hard yet, but it will. She hopes I’m wrong. I told her I’m a glass-half-empty kind of guy. Plus I’m in the high-risk demographic. If there’s anything you need just let me know, she told me. I thanked her and extended her the same offer.
While the pandemic is global, it’s also local. Contagion is intimately local, the virus passing from one person to another at distances rarely exceeding a few meters. And because the virus has so far infected only 5 to 10 percent of the populace, most of the most intimate interpersonal localities — households — remain untouched. They’ve sheltered in place; they’re told that the worst is over; they feel like they’ve weathered the storm and come out whole.
Open things up again, extend the circumference of locality to neighborhoods and social networks, to workplaces and marketplaces, to beaches and ballparks, to cities and counties, to nations, and more and more loci prove to be infected. With renewed freedom of movement the virus, highly contagious, will eventually penetrate every locality, becoming intimate with nearly every household.
One can count the number of people infected and the number dead, but those are metrics relevant at the level of the individual. In social aggregates the relevant metrics are also aggregate: averages, trends, demographics, surveys, forecasts, confidence intervals, statistical models. A dead body is as real as it gets, but a mortality rate? It’s an abstraction, an artifice, a simulation, shaping the contours of a probabilistic ecology that’s removed from the actual here-and-now physicality of individual human beings getting sick and dying.
Immunity is even more intimately local than contagion, acting out its drama inside the individual human body. In most instances the individual’s immune system will, through rapidly recombinant DNA and random genetic mutation, generate swarms of antibodies that can identify, bind with, and dismantle the viral intruders. Those individuals whose immune systems are up to the job will survive and become resistant to reinfection, at least for a while. Eventually a vaccine will give the still-untouched a head start, injecting them with benign variants of the virus, letting their immune systems adapt without becoming overwhelmed by rampant viral reproduction and illness. For now though, it’s every individual’s innate immune system for itself. As we age, our recombinant mutational apparatus of immunity slows down, rendering us less resistant, more vulnerable to outside intruders, less capable of restraining viral reproduction before a mild case turns serious or fatal. Social isolation — limiting exposure to infection — becomes an external adjunct to internal survival mechanisms that have declined in efficiency.
Arguably the intimate, microscopic, visceral interplay between viral proliferation and antibody response is where the covid action is; illness and recovery are just proxies and sequelae. But for humans the microbial cellular level is just as abstract as the aggregate statistical level. Humans spontaneously engage the world at neither the microlevel nor the macrolevel but at the mesolevel. I started feeling sick, then I got sicker, then I started feeling better, and now I feel fine: immunity at the mesolevel.
Social distancing, thus far the primary means of suppressing viral spread through the population, operates at the aggregate macrolevel. It feels abstract, theoretical, unnatural, maybe unnecessary — remote from the reality of staying well versus getting sick. In Trump’s guidelines, the next level of containment involves identifying individual people who are ill, testing them individually for the virus, physically isolating them as individuals and as households, and tracking their interpersonal contacts one at a time to see if they’ve passed the illness along to others. Maybe this sort of intimate, interpersonal, mesolevel intervention strategy will seem more intuitive, will be more easily followed, by the hundreds of millions of regular humans who occupy this country.
But.. to do it right there have to be labs, science, technology, logistics, follow-through, coordination between the local and the societal…