Our Pandemic Summer

The fight against the coronavirus won’t be over when the U.S. reopens. Here’s how the nation must prepare itself.

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Image: Joan Wong

I. Reopening

A lockdown is a measure of last resort, to be used only when a virus is spreading so rapidly that it cannot be controlled through other means. Having deployed that measure, albeit unevenly, the U.S. has now bought itself some time. It can use that time to address its lack of tests and medical supplies, and find less economically devastating ways of controlling COVID-19. When sufficiently braced, states could begin lifting their sweeping restrictions and focus on finding and helping people who are actually infected. But the conditions for making that switch are not clear. “We’ve never faced a pandemic like this before in modern times, so we’re going to have to be flexible,” said Caitlin Rivers of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “There’s no real playbook.”

II. Recalibration

There’s good reason to reopen the U.S. slowly and methodically. When the pandemic first hit, a wide range of social-distancing measures — closing offices, shutting schools, banning mass gatherings, implementing stay-at-home orders — were rolled out in a sudden panic. The rushed deployment was necessary, but made it hard to know which measures actually mattered. The next few months offer opportunities to find out. Communities could relax restrictions gradually, and see if the virus remains at a simmer or returns to a boil. When the virus returns, political leaders should be able to make more informed decisions about which levers to flip. “We should absolutely be throwing everything we can to figure that out,” said Jessica Metcalf, an infectious-disease ecologist at Princeton.

III. Reinforcements

During the long wait for a vaccine, other countermeasures could conceivably dampen the threat of COVID-19. The simplest of these is the face mask. Medical masks are still in short supply, and must be reserved for health-care workers. But homemade alternatives might help slow the spread of the coronavirus, less by preventing healthy wearers from getting infected and more by stopping unknowingly sick wearers from infecting others. As I wrote earlier this month, masks are symbols as well as shields. In East Asian countries, where they are widely worn, they signify civic-mindedness and conscientiousness. As their use grows in Western nations, they could send the message that society is collectively acting against a serious threat.

IV. Resilience

During the Vietnam War, Vice Admiral James Stockdale spent seven years being tortured in a Hanoi prison. When asked about his experience, he noted that optimistic prison-mates eventually broke, as they passed one imagined deadline for release after another. Stockdale’s strategy, instead, was to meld hope with realism — “the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail,” as he put it, with “the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are.”

Written by

Science writer at The Atlantic. Author of I CONTAIN MULTITUDES, a New York Times bestseller on animal-microbe partnerships. https://edyong.me/

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