How We Can Get the Next Phase of the Coronavirus Right
Six ways to survive our pandemic summer.
Mr. Warzel is an Opinion writer at large.
· May 14, 2020
Heading into our pandemic summer, my biggest worry is that in the effort to get Americans to flatten the coronavirus curve, nobody prepared the country for what comes next.
In late February “flatten the curve” became our collective refrain — stay home, save lives. Charts showing how social distancing can reduce the spread of the virus and protect hospitals from overcrowding were simple to interpret and they became a meme. Americans listened, many at great personal sacrifice.
But, as in a column last week, flattening the curve is just one part of the response to the pandemic. It’s a mitigation strategy, which helps keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed and drives cases and deaths down. But there’s a second phase of fighting a virus known as suppression, which aims not to push back the peak of infections but stamp out outbreaks altogether. Suppression strategies include mass testing, contact tracing and isolating people who get sick. These steps are part of the reason places like South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong have kept cases down and restored some normalcy. Unfortunately, the United States is far behind on suppression — with no comprehensive federal strategy.
As states debate how to reopen their economies, the limits of flattening the curve are clear. We have taken pressure off hospital systems, but few places have brought cases down to zero. We need to move our focus to the next step. “It’s time to move beyond ‘flatten the curve’ to a new mantra: ‘Suppress the virus,’” Mr. Yglesias wrote.
Which brings me to my big worry that for some, resentment and distrust is building. I’m not referring to the lockdown protests or those who’ve politicized the virus to the point where donning a mask means succumbing to tyranny. The resentment I’m worried about is distrust in authorities. Months into the pandemic, some people feel as if the goal posts have been moved.
So far, this argument is more popular in conservative spheres — The Washington Examiner columnist Timothy Carney captured the spirit “Don’t make ‘flatten the curve’ be a lie,” and the conservative editor Bethany Mandel echoed it in her now-infamous “You can call me a Grandma Killer” : “Remember when we were told we had to flatten the curve and we’d lockdown for a few weeks to ramp up PPE and free up ventilators or else we’d have to start death panels? When did that turn into indefinite lockdowns and economic destruction because ‘if it saves one life’?”
That line of argument is oversimplified and disingenuous. But the problem with an epidemiological construct like “flatten the curve” becoming a meme is that it’s inevitably reduced and simplified into a slogan. And given that so much of the messaging around the virus has been unclear and hasn’t come from a centralized authority, it can certainly feel like the metrics for success are changing. That’s a problem. Public health officials are worried, too. Responsibly moving states out of lockdown is going to require a great deal of public trust. We lack adequate testing and tracing capacity, so state governments will need to communicate uncertainty while carrying out reopening strategies. This will be harder to do if people are under the false impression that the lockdowns were the final phase of the Covid-19 crisis.
The next phase of the Covid-19 response will be fraught. States that open might need to clamp down again if the virus spreads. Guidance on public gatherings might change with little notice. Compliance with these shifting guidelines will require public trust. In a recent New Yorker profile of Seattle’s effective coronavirus response, “a pandemic is a communications emergency as much as a medical crisis.”
So what can we do to build trust and prepare people for the months to come? A paper from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy titled has six suggestions. Taken together, they’re a helpful guide for anyone trying to navigate the coming uncertainty — from public health officials to politicians to the press. Even parents might find the guide useful in talking to children about the virus. A quick summary:
Candid conversations build trust.
False confidence sets people up to feel betrayed if the authority turns out to be wrong. “We have long noticed that our clients trust our advice more if we emphasize that we’re not sure,” the paper reads.
People are afraid. And rightly so. Don’t tell people they have nothing to fear but instead acknowledge it and work with it.
Giving people agency is crucial to keep them from spiraling into denial. “As psychiatrists and generals have long known, action binds anxiety,” the authors write. “People who are doing things to protect themselves and others can bear their fear better.” For reopening, the authors imagine something like a “social distancing point value” system where tasks like going to the grocery store are assigned points based on risk. Individuals and proprietors could be granted an allotment of points and choose how to exercise them. It wouldn’t be compulsory but would give people a feeling of control.
Self-explanatory, but as we all know, quite difficult.
This is an extension of Rule 2 — admitting you don’t know what to do next and outlining the possibilities. This is where we live right now, between lockdowns and full reopenings.
Here, the authors are blunt: “Before we can share the dilemma of how best to manage any loosening of the lockdown, we must decisively — and apologetically — disabuse the public of the myth that, barring a miracle, the Covid-19 pandemic can possibly be nearing its end in the next few months.”
This is dispiriting. But it’s also freeing. Once we dispel the notion that life will magically snap back to normal in a few months, we can start planning how we’ll adapt to life in coronavirus limbo. If we are honest about what we know and don’t know, we’re less likely to shame others, causing resentment. People won’t feel as though they’re being lied to. As Julia Marcus we can responsibly begin to resume safer activities (like ) and carve out a life inside the pandemic “instead of an all-or-nothing approach to risk prevention.”
The next months will be difficult. Right now we have two options. We can project unearned certainty, offer false reassurance. We can draw hard lines around lockdowns and scold others for small social-distancing infractions while hoping that public health guidance doesn’t shift and prove us wrong down the road. Or we can prepare ourselves and one another for an uncertain future with candor, empathy and humility and, in the process, try to earn back some trust.