Survival that night was a very tight race, and savagely simple. People who started early and moved fast had some chance of winning. People who started late or hesitated for any reason had no chance at all. Action paid. Contemplation did not. The mere act of getting dressed was enough to condemn people to death, and although many of those who escaped to the water succumbed to the cold, most of the ultimate winners endured the ordeal completely naked or in their underwear. The survivors all seem to have grasped the nature of this race, the first stage of which involved getting outside to the Deck 7 promenade without delay.
–William Langeweische, A Sea Story, The Atlantic (May 2004)
I am not absolutely certain that protecting the public from coronavirus requires the same remorseless haste as escaping the sinking of the ferry Estonia, but I increasingly and uncomfortably believe that the chance is high enough that we must act as though it does.
This past week, the United States tried social distancing with all deliberate speed. Stores closed, parades cancelled, universities went online. Restaurants and bars are open but often with curfews and capacity limits. And many school systems announced that they would be closed for a week or two.
How did it go? Not so great:
In Seattle, where one hospital is reportedly preparing for Northern Italy levels of infection and already running low on some supplies, bars in the Capitol Hill neighborhood have been full of people. On Friday evening, a Twitter search for the phrase “the bars are packed” yielded hundreds of tweets from cities like Baltimore; Columbus, Ohio; Los Angeles and New York City. On Saturday in Chicago, one reporter tweeted a photo of a line around the block for a St. Patrick’s Day bar crawl at 8 a.m.
On Wednesday night, as President Trump was announcing a travel ban from Europe to the United States, hundreds of residents at The Villages freely roamed the sprawling property. Partygoers danced to the live music presented nightly, ignoring the warnings of the CDC to practice social distancing — “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings” and maintaining a distance of about six feet to guard against infection.
“We’re living the last third of our lives,” Sal Gentile, 70, wrote in response to a Washington Post inquiry. “We’re bolder, not older. Time to be mindful. Take a deep breath and enjoy life. We worked many decades to now have the privilege of being older. … Yep, I have a pacemaker and recent fusion; however my love for quality of life is more important to me than being rattled by a TV station.”
Airports around the country were thrown into chaos Saturday night as workers scrambled to roll out the Trump administration’s hastily arranged health screenings for travelers returning from Europe.
Scores of anxious passengers said they encountered jam-packed terminals, long lines and hours of delays as they waited to be questioned by health authorities at some of the busiest travel hubs in the United States.
If this is broadly representative, then we are doing exactly what Italy did at the same point in its infection curve. Their grim and worsening present will be our future. People will die, in great and terrible numbers.
If people will not voluntarily keep away from each other, government will need to make them keep away from each other. Close the bars. Close the restaurants. Close the churches. Close the stores, except for groceries, pharmacies, and a few other essentials. And most especially, close the schools. These moves will eliminate the most extreme and outrageous concentrations of people infecting each other. And they will also signal, clearly and unmistakably, that people should treat their own social distancing as a matter of life and death, because it is. (If not their own, then those of people they love, and of their fellow Americans.)
There are obvious and quite severe costs to taking these steps. They shutter more businesses and put more people out of work. They isolate people mentally as well as physically. And they make it harder for the work that must still be done to get done. The schools are an especially poignant case. Many children depend on schools to eat; many parents depend on schools to be able to work. A nurse at home watching two children off from school is a nurse who is not able to care for patients.
These costs, however, are no longer reasons to delay shutting everything down. They are instead problems that must be solved as part of shutting everything down. If businesses can’t survive without customers, give them loans. If employees can’t survive without a paycheck, give them money and food. If people depend on schools to watch their children, find a way to provide childcare safely for those who truly need it. If everyone needs company for their mental health, find news ways to create community. And so on. This will require institutional improvisation on a vast scale. So be it. That is what is required.
This is not easy. This is not cheap. It will be wrenching, and it will make people suffer. But if the coronavirus continues to spread in the way it has so far, a shutdown is inevitable. The choice is not between a shutdown and no shutdown. It is between a shutdown now and a shutdown later, between a shutdown on terms we can partially control and a shutdown on terms that are forced on us, between a shutdown when it still can do some good and a shutdown that comes too late.
One might say (as the United Kingdom appears to be saying) that it is better to wait until it is truly necessary. This is a risky strategy, bordering on reckless. It takes a long time to stop even after slamming on the brakes. If you are wrong about how fast you are going, how far you are from the wall, or how effective the brakes are, disaster can ensue.
And even more importantly, buying time now is incredibly precious. We have squandered the time we had from the early warnings of a serious new infection in Wuhan, time that could have been used to create tests, increase hospital capacity, stockpile equipment, and take a million other preparations. Those preparations are in full swing now. An extra few weeks would be a profound gift to hospitals, to local governments, to laboratories, and to everyone else racing to brace for impact. It would also be a profound gift to the doctors and epidemiologists and other researchers trying to understand the coronavirus and develop strategies to deal with it. Think about how much clearer the picture of coronavirus’s spread in the United States is now than it was two weeks ago, and how much better we understand what is and isn’t proving effective in slowing that spread around the world.
I wrote a few days ago that the clock is ticking. I meant it as a call to action. But it has an important corollary. Stalling for time is a kind of action, too.