Over the past month the US lockdown has succeeded in sustaining a steady rate of contagion and death. However, projected decreases have yet to materialize, and it’s becoming evident that they never will. Some countries have done it, have brought the epidemic to a standstill — South Korea and Australia offer prime examples. Some, like Germany and Czech, are in the process of doing it.
The US hasn’t and isn’t.
Americans have been encouraged to adopt social distancing measures as a temporary measure against a short-lived crisis, rather than as a long-term adaptation to an altered environment. So too with economic measures: increased compensation for the newly unemployed and underemployed is scheduled to sunset at the end of July, while actual payout of those benefits has been shamefully slow in coming. Right-wing agitators are getting militant as national and local politicians assure the public that the worst is over, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary. Ready or not, things are opening up again.
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that no systematic widespread coordinated efforts will be made to contain the epidemic once shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted. There aren’t enough diagnostic tests to identify and quarantine contagious cases until they’re so sick they’re already home-bound. Findings from most antibody tests are so inaccurate that false positives exceed actual positives. Most locales don’t have nearly enough case trackers to isolate contagious individuals and to identify others with whom they’ve been in contact.
Full church pews and Fourth of July parades and miracle cures and the worst is behind us — public clarions of optimism are beginning to sound shrill and hollow even to true believers. Herd immunity, conspiracy theory, the intrinsic ADHD of the American character — rationales are being trotted out as post-hoc excuses for imminent failure.
It seems foolish to hope that the status quo, bad as it is, can persist for long before taking a sharp turn for the worse. At the present rate, maybe 85 million Americans — a quarter of the population — will have been infected by the end of the year, accompanied by a death toll of maybe half a million. That’s still a long way from herd immunity. But maintaining the steady rate of infection keeps the medical system from being overwhelmed any more than it already is. And if the news from Oxford U. and AstraZeneca comes from reliable sources, then a vaccine could be widely available in early 2021. So there’s motivation to hold a steady course.
Surprisingly, maybe the best hope for avoiding a spike relies less on governmental mandate than on a decentralized array of everyday interpersonal transactions. Schools and meatpacking plants and nursing homes don’t want to fling their doors open if it means exposing their workers and customers to infection. They’d lose revenues, and they’d incur higher operating costs — a lose-lose situation for return on investment. Put infrared thermometers at all the entrances; wear masks; maintain social distancing; send sick workers home with pay. Diagnostic testing and contact tracing? They’re essential if the goal is to bring infections to a halt, but it’s become clear that the supply will never catch up with the demand imposed by the virus itself. If instead the goal is the more modest one of sustaining the plateau until the vaccine shows up, then any and every useful resource should thrown into the fray.