When it first became clear that Covid-19 was headed our way (back in January), my first thought was that nothing would stop it and it would pass through Kendal like wildfire. I’m glad I was wrong about that. Then, as we began to understand that our lockdown restrictions would probably keep us residents safe, it seemed to me that there was a chance that Covid-19 in the U.S. would be similarly contained and we would be able to return to something approaching “normal” (with perhaps occasional periods of severe restrictions during outbreaks) within a matter of months. The state of Pennsylvania seemed to be on the right track, with the governor imposing significant restrictions and setting fairly high hurdles for regions wishing to remove the restrictions.
Now, I have mostly given up hope that the U.S., and Pennsylvania, will contain the virus. I don’t like disappointment, and I cope with that by setting my expectations low enough that they are likely to be met.
Four powerful articles that I have read in recent days have caused me to lower my expectations about a near-term resolution of the pandemic. All but the fourth article (a local analysis from the Philadelphia Inquirer) explicitly recognize that we must proceed on the assumption that no vaccine will be available anytime soon.
Pueyo: herd immunity isn’t working. The first article was a June 9 piece by Tomas Pueyo. I’ve discussed his work before. He combines an unusual gift for analyzing Covid-19 data from around the world with an even greater gift for explaining its implications. In his latest piece, Pueyo discusses Sweden’s experiment with “herd immunity”, why it hasn’t worked, and why it can’t work, in Sweden or anywhere else. Pueyo then describes the patchwork of state-based policies in the U.S. as something between the Swedish approach and the “hammer and dance” approach that he advocates.
Pueyo warns: “If some states are going to continue in this Herd Immunity path, the only alternative for other states that want to save their citizens and are trying to [act responsibly] is to restrict travel from other states. Otherwise, they will carry all the costs of heavy lockdowns…, and few of the benefits in the reduction of cases.”
If Pueyo is correct about this, then the controlling the pandemic seems unlikely. Will Pennsylvania stop people from coming in from Ohio or vice versa? I can’t imagine that happening.
Osterholm: We’ll need a Churchill to get us through this. The second of the four articles is an interview with Michael Osterholm, a professor at the University of Minnesota (where he serves as Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy) and former interim head of the CDC. It was published June 6.
He speaks about previous viral pandemics: “In every instance the virus came back with a second wave. And when that happened, usually three to four months after that initial wave was over, it tended to be much, much more severe.” If that happens this fall, he wonders, can we muster up the personal and political will to lock down again? He thinks people won’t be willing to take as strict an approach the second time around. He is concerned that we could have around a million deaths unless we can summon the necessary will to make sacrifices and maintain strict controls.
He continues: “…we can’t just lockdown. I look at this with two guardrails. On one side is a guardrail where we are locked down for 18 months to try to get us all to a vaccine without anyone having to get infected or die. We will destroy not just the economy but society as we know that if we try to do that. The other guardrail is to just let it go and see what happens. We will see [huge numbers of deaths] and we will see healthcare systems that will literally implode…. If we’re not going to lock up and we’re not going to open up willy-nilly, then what is the approach?” he asks.
Osterholm says: “[We need] an FDR or a Winston Churchill. Because I know that over the months ahead, we’re going to have a great deal of difficulty working through this pandemic. The darkest days are still ahead of us. And we need that moral leadership, that command leadership that doesn’t minimize what’s before us but allows everyone to see that we’re going to get through it.”
If Osterholm is right about that, and right about the second wave being worse than the first, where will we find the leadership he says we need? None of our prominent politicians seem to me to have that potential.
Mounk: The virus will win. Yascha Mounk, a Johns Hopkins professor writing in The Atlantic on June 6, has turned from optimistic to pessimistic about the prognosis for the pandemic. A month ago, he started to write an optimistic article, assuming that we would find a way to keep the virus at bay. If we could “contain the pandemic, and avert millions of deaths, it would constitute one of the greatest achievements in human history.” There was reason to hope that “some magic bullet might rescue us from the worst ravages of the disease,” in the form of a vaccine or treatment.
His hopes are receding. “After months of intense research, an effective treatment for COVID-19 still does not exist. A vaccine is, even if we get lucky, many months away from deployment.” We are left with containment, through limiting gatherings, social distancing, and mask-wearing.
But Americans were not willing to take the steps needed. Mounk cites polls showing that “the number of people who favor ‘reopening the economy as soon as possible’ over ‘staying home as long as necessary’ has increased….Any attempt to deal with a resurgence of the virus is likely to be even more haphazard, contentious, and ineffective than it was the first time around.” He concludes: “Pandemics reveal the true state of a society. Ours has come up badly wanting.”
The Inquirer: Chester County is not making its milestones. The fourth article was closer to home. It was from the Philadelphia Inquirer of June 11, discussing how the counties in our region are doing, and how our own Chester County in particular is not doing well right now. “Chester County is the only county in this region that has failed to meet two important benchmarks for continuing to ease coronavirus restrictions. Its latest 14-day count of new cases, according to state data, is up 20% and it hasn’t had a positive test rate of less than 10% for 14 days in a row,” the article states.
The article quotes Pennsylvania Department of Health spokesperson Nathan Wardle as saying that, if these metrics don’t improve, the county “will not be able to move to the next [Green] phase.”
In fact, as I reported previously, Chester County has already moved into the Yellow phase in spite of missing the governor’s guidelines for that phase, and in spite of the growth in new cases that the county is currently experiencing. For the time being, there is no prospect of banishing Covid-19 from our area.
Perhaps we are still at the beginning of this pandemic. My takeaway from these four articles is that there is no likelihood that this pandemic will end any time soon. The number of cases, and deaths, will grow. It will not disappear from our area for months, perhaps longer. Business interests don’t want any more restrictions, and they seem to control our politicians.
If the pandemic drags on, so will the restrictions on us at Kendal. Given the number of us here who are “at risk” because of age or underlying conditions, it is unsafe to return to the unrestricted life we lived until March. Visitors will have to be carefully controlled. Gatherings will have to be limited. Vacations will be few, and we will face restrictions on our return.
I have had to lower my expectations. I fear we may be just at the beginning a very long period before we return to anything that resembles the life we enjoyed just six months ago.