We can’t know any of that for sure, and it will all affect the future spread of the virus.
But President Trump told Fox News on Sunday that “Look, we’re going to lose anywhere from 75, 80 to 100,000 people,” which is somewhat more frank than he’s been before. Though he tries to put all the blame on China, the United States was no less aware of China’s early downplaying of the virus than any other country, so China’s actions don’t explain how so many countries have done better than us at containing it.
Indeed, we now have over a quarter of the world’s deaths from covid-19, though we make up only 4 percent of the world’s population.
This story about an extremely dire projection circulating within the administration is obviously notable because it’s such a glaring contradiction of the message from the administration and from Trump in particular, who says every time he goes in front of a camera that they’re doing a fantastic job and things will soon return to normal. Even his latest estimate of 75,000 to 100,000 deaths seems extremely optimistic; at the current rate of around 2,000 deaths a day, we’ll reach 100,000 in a little over two weeks.
So we’re in a strange place: The rate of deaths seems to have plateaued, it could well increase, yet some governors are moving to relax restrictions right away, or at least very soon.
And here’s a fact that may not be clear given how much media focus there has been on the terrible death toll in New York, where infections have been declining over the last few weeks. If you haven’t seen as many horror stories from New York, you might think that things are getting better, but if you take New York out of the equation, new infections nationally are still rising. We’re not over the hump.
Meanwhile, if you’ve seen the news about protests against stay-at-home orders, you might think there’s already some kind of popular revolt going on. But overwhelming majorities are more worried about returning to normal too soon than they are about staying locked down too long. For instance, in this poll, 73 percent of people said we should continue social distancing even if it hurts the economy, and 79 percent say it’s likely there will be a second wave of infections.
So the public is not being Pollyannaish about our near future. In fact, we’re witnessing an extraordinary collective effort, in which hundreds of millions of Americans join together to do their part to defeat the pandemic, even if a few very visible people reject that communal consensus.
But what would happen if everyone realized that the disruption of our lives will last not a few more weeks but months and months more? What are the limits of our tolerance for being cooped up? None of us can say for sure. And it’s entirely possible that we’ll have to hold a presidential election while the pandemic is still ongoing, after which there could be a change of administration with a radical shift in policy.
Which of course would be followed by a right-wing reaction, producing raucous anti-government protests. The protests we’ve seen so far may be small, but if there’s a Democrat in the White House, they will balloon in size as anger and frustration from the right focus on that person.
That’s not to mention the fact that if lockdowns do continue for months, the economic cataclysm we’ve already experienced could get far worse. Millions of businesses are now hanging on by the skin of their teeth, maintained by the forgivable loans in the rescue packages. But there’s only so long they can wait before they have to simply go out of business for good. Thirty million people have already filed for unemployment, a situation none of us have ever seen. What if it’s 40 million or 50 million or 60 million?
We just don’t know what it will look like — socially, economically and politically. But the prospect is frightening.