On Our Own

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March 11, 2020 11:33 p.m.

We are all coming up to speed with phrases like social distancing, containment and mitigation, disease curves and more. From everything I have heard – and I’ve been listening very closely – a blanket ban on travel to and from Europe is largely irrelevant to the current situation. There is probably a logic to barring travel to and from northern Italy. Screenings at airports make sense. But the virus is here, apparently seeded at multiple locations in the United States and on a growth curve that looks very similar to those of countries that were two or three weeks ahead of us. If I heard him correctly that was the only substantial new policy the President announced other than still quite vague stimulus efforts, which focused on ‘liquidity’, even though liquidity isn’t the core of the economic dimension of the crisis.

This and other news over the last several hours suggests that the President is simply and largely disconnected from the work of top administration officials. He made no mention of testing, which seems to be the core issue the country is now facing. Nor did he give any broad guidance about a national plan – adaptable to different regions and outbreak levels in different parts of the country. He made a half hearted attempt to tie the crisis to his longstanding focus on border controls and foreigners, notably referring to COVID-19 as a “foreign virus”. He bragged again about his travel restrictions on China. And that seemed to be the logic of his travel ban with Europe. First it was China and I had a plan for that. Now it’s Europe and I’m going to do the same effective plan.

This is the reality we as a citizenry have made for ourselves.

As I said, we seem to be entirely on our own, with a half-decapitated national government depending on limited executive leadership, a rebounding and critical role for national public health agencies with a lot of the lead taken by states, localities and the private sector.

There’s no magic about this estimate. But the public communications of New York City have been working with an estimate of the city remaining on a crisis footing through September. They are clear: this is an estimate. It could be longer or shorter. I think the logic of the estimate is both for city government planning but also to set residents’ expectation. This won’t be over next week or next month. Expect this to be the new normal for a significant period of time, on the order of six months.

For the last ten days or so my expectation has been that we face months of what amounts to a national war of attrition with the virus or something like whack-a-mole. As you’ve seen, the key goal is to ‘bend the curve’, slow the pace and extent of spread both to limit the number of infections and pace them so the public health system isn’t overwhelmed. Assuming the country manages something like that, you likely have a lengthy period of partial social shut down – remote work, bans on large public events, heavy emphasis on hygiene. A particular hotspot breaks out in one place. They intensify the clampdown there until it’s ratcheted down to a manageable pace. Then there’s another in some other part of the country. And that just keeps going on. As I said, a war of attrition.

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