Our Slow Motion Catastrophe

Throughout our lifetime, national traumas have come as something of a shock. Levees in New Orleans suddenly breaching. Banks closing and markets collapsing. Boeing 767s streaking across a bright blue sky.

And while most of us are still using euphemisms to describe the current situation—“unprecedented times,” “everything that’s going on,” “the current situation”—the projections from scientists, academics, politicians, and public health officials all align: we’re headed for a catastrophe of historic proportions. Slowly (for now), agonizingly, we are inching toward a precipice of trauma that few of us are prepared for.

Even with social distancing and a nationwide sprint to flatten the curve, it’s more likely than not that the train has left the station. Where previous tragedies have caught us off guard, we have a decent idea of where this one is probably heading. And it’s not pretty.

As strange and awful as the past two weeks have been, I can’t shake the feeling that in a month (or two, or six, or 18), we’ll look back on this time as the fun part. It’s been a lot of Zoom happy hours and learning to bake. Catching up on shows, sleeping in, skipping the gym. 

What it feels like we’re all ignoring to some degree—intentionally on my part, in an effort to stay sane—is what comes next. 

We see what’s going on in Italy and Iran and we think something along the lines of “man, I hope that doesn’t happen here.” The reality is that it’s entirely possible, and maybe even likely, that the disaster in Italy is just beginning; that in a week or two the scale of the loss will be astronomically higher and the situation we’re witnessing there now will seem almost innocent by comparison. And that we’ll find that for all our recent efforts, we already put ourselves on that same track months ago.

Before I go further, I should stop to say that there is broad consensus that the types of social distancing efforts underway in Italy, France, Spain, New York, California, Illinois, and elsewhere do work. As contagious as this virus is, it doesn’t float through the wind; it usually requires human-to-human contact to transmit, and large scale restrictions on physical human interactions should greatly reduce the spread. 

But we don’t know 1) how strictly implemented and well-followed these restrictions will be, and 2) how widely the disease spread before we started going all out to stop it. The evidence from Europe suggests that the answer to #2 is likely much worse than we would hope.

Which is why it’s time to begin grappling with what is likely to come. That does not mean panic or despondence; we each have a significant role to play in flattening the curve and preventing transmission. But it does mean starting to process what’s next.

According to The New York Times, Columbia researchers estimate we’ll soon see hundreds of thousands of cases per day for a period of a month or more, even with some control measures. That number is significantly lower, but still in the tens of thousands, with severe control measures. 

The infamous Imperial College study projects more than a million Americans could die in spite of the steps governments are now taking. Even if they were able to more fully replicate efforts in Wuhan and South Korea that go beyond lockdowns—including widespread testing, mandatory isolation for those who test positive, and mandatory quarantine for those with symptoms—20,000 or more are likely to perish in the U.K., according to the study. The authors didn’t model this scenario for the U.S., but Britain has a population about 1/5th of the United States. 

So it’s staggering. And horrifying. And I hope dearly that it’s not inevitable. But what if it is? What if tens of thousands dead is the best case scenario.

Right now, unless you worked on the set of the Mr. Rogers movie or play basketball for a living, you probably don’t personally know anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19. But you will, that much seems almost certain. 

Fortunately, even if the medical system gets overwhelmed, experts say the vast majority of those infected with the virus will recover fully on their own. Thank God. 

But I can’t stop thinking about that projection of two million dead even with controls in place. That’s about .6% of the population. In some localities, it will surely be higher. 

Think about how many people you know. A few hundred? Maybe a couple thousand, depending on your life experiences? If this goes how they say it will—even with everything we’re doing to stop it—this is likely to touch all of us in a way much deeper and much more traumatic than the inconvenience of staying home for months on end.

And as awful, horrendous, sickening, and hopefully wrong as that possibility is, it’s time for all of us to begin processing it. 

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