New York is clearly past its peak: New cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all gradually going down. But those tragic numbers are still rising in much of the rest of the country. Covid-19 has become one of the leading causes of death in the nation. The New York Times reported that an internal Trump administration estimate predicts daily covid-19 deaths nationwide could rise to 3,000 by the beginning of June, roughly twice the daily toll right now.
Yet, as New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) noted Monday, draconian stay-at-home restrictions are “not a sustainable situation.” People will have to be let out of their homes. Children need to be educated. The economy will have to be gently roused from its induced coma.
Covid-19 can — and, I believe, someday will — be defeated by a safe and effective vaccine. But the fastest-ever vaccine development to date (for mumps) took four years. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said Sunday that it may be possible to have a covid-19 vaccine by the end of the year “on paper.” But written formulae, however brilliant, cannot be injected into veins.
So, for now, we’re going to have to find a way to coexist with this pathogen.
If it is confirmed that having had the disease and developed antibodies confer robust and long-lasting immunity, perhaps survivors can resume their normal activities, and those whose work requires up-close-and-personal contact, such as barbers and massage therapists, can somehow have their covid-immune status certified. Unless and until we have universal testing, however, there’s no way to know who’s safe and who’s not.
The rest of us will venture out more slowly and cautiously, with masks now a routine part of our wardrobes. The most vulnerable — those over 65 and those suffering from preexisting conditions such as heart disease or diabetes — will probably be the last to emerge from isolation. But what will we find when we go back out into the world?
It is hard to imagine how large crowds, such as those for sports events, can safely gather before there is a vaccine. We may have to watch sports on television — assuming the immunity status of the athletes is known, and arrangements can be made that allow them to stay healthy and compete safely — and provide our own crowd noise.
But what about other situations in which we’re used to being in close quarters? Restaurants can try social-distancing their diners, but fewer tables mean less revenue; many probably will not survive, at least not with their current rents and business plans intact. Retailers must meter the number of shoppers allowed in stores at any given time, and browsing may be more nerve-wracking than pleasurable. Cinema houses will suffer, if they even reopen, and I wonder whether the experience of watching a film amid a crowd will become a thing of the past. The drive-in theaters that are just barely keeping the movies alive right now might make a more permanent comeback.
Airline travel presents an especially tough problem: People need to move from place to place, yet airliners offer a captive audience for opportunistic germs. I don’t know whether we’ll ever require travelers to present “immunity passports” along with their government IDs. But at a minimum, I think there will be temperature checks to identify those who might have the active disease and be spreading it, and perhaps even rapid testing such as the screening Emirates Airline is rolling out.
Governments and major health insurers have wisely decided to make covid-19 testing, treatment and medications free of charge. That is one emergency measure that should be made permanent — and expanded into a national system of truly universal health care. This pandemic offers a vivid illustration of the fact that the health of the individual depends on the health of the community.
And we are a community, whether we like it or not. Self-interest and the common interest are one and the same. Businesses that reopen without adequately making customers feel safe will fail. Widespread recklessness will lead to new shutdowns and more economic pain.
We are all in this together. Some of us may not like that, but the coronavirus doesn’t care.