Back when the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan was new, I started keeping an eye on the propaganda videos and tweets being produced by the Chinese government. All were designed to awaken our best wartime traits: self-sacrifice, courage, optimism, solidarity, sense of humor. It could be inspiring clips of heroic health care workers suiting up for their work or saying goodbye to their children from a distance. It could be humorous clips of children doing dance moves or coming up with other forms of quarantined entertainment. It could be hopeful clips of hospital staff saying goodbye to recovered patients and handing them flowers. The New York Times would later characterize them as mendacious, clichéd, and ineffective, but, frankly, I thought they were pretty sophisticated. A few weeks ago, when the disaster reached a peak in Wuhan and I coincidentally came down with flu symptoms and couldn’t stop myself from fretting over the worst, I looked for a way to calm myself and settled on—what else?—Chinese propaganda videos. Hey, I knew they were meant to manipulate me, but I wanted to be manipulated. There’s a bit of wartime psychology for you.
As luck would then have it, Seattle, where I live, became the first city in the United States to find it was harboring a severe outbreak. While I’d like to think that Seattle’s problem will remain unique in severity, there’s no reason to. Seattle discovered the problem only because of local scientists who circumvented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and began to diagnose the problem on their own. Odds are that we are all Seattle. What we know here—or scientists indicated was likely—is that by the time we discovered our outbreak the virus had been spreading locally for six weeks, suggesting as many as 1,500 latent cases were waiting to be discovered. Today, because of the workings of exponential growth, that number is likely to be several times higher. (Because the doubling time of cases seems to be about six or seven days, the difference between half of Seattle getting sick and all of Seattle getting sick is a week.) Seattle Public Schools have finally closed, albeit after a prolonged and stubborn stretch when the perils were already obvious. Restaurants are open but empty or half-full. Traffic has been a breeze at all times of day. That’ll be the case everywhere soon.
None of this feels quite real yet to most of us. Or, to be more precise, none of what we know is coming tomorrow feels reasonable to expect today. This is an age-old limitation for most of us: the inability to accept what is imminent but destabilizing. The management scholar Peter Drucker often marveled at the inability of business leaders and policymakers to accept or capitalize on the implications of looming demographic change, something that is huge but delayed. (Everyone who is going to be able to turn 18 in a decade is already alive, for instance.) “The lead times are known,” he wrote. “The events themselves have already happened. But no one accepts them as reality.” Twitter is full of tsunami comparisons right now, because sometimes only an over-used metaphor feels right. You can watch a video of the port town of Miyako getting deluged after the Tōhoku earthquake of 2011, and the person filming from a safe height knows it’s about to hit, just as the viewer does. Yet what unfolds from minute to minute—water rising, boats getting dislodged, sea wall getting breached, cars getting carried away, houses getting carried away—seems almost impossible to imagine or accept until it has already happened.
Will we behave ourselves? In an article from a few weeks ago, I laid out why the United States might fail the coronavirus test if it came to our shores. Our main problems were going to be distrust of the press, institutional incompetence, mismanagement by Donald Trump, and negative partisanship. I mention this in case it’s useful to know what one average but vigilant person has learned, in retrospect. Some things aren’t as bad as predicted, while others are much, much worse.
- Public health expert warns virus not going away – KSAT San Antonio
- Tesla asks employees to resume production at Fremont car plant despite coronavirus health orders – CNBC
- Major health groups and charities urge Trump to reverse World Health Organization funding decision – CNN
- Public health officials push back on May opening | TheHill – The Hill
- Analysis | The Health 202: Los Angeles is racing to discover the true coronavirus infection rate – The Washington Post
- Some Public Health Officials Not Releasing Coronavirus Hospitalizations : Shots – Health News – NPR
- Covid-19 health-care crisis could drive new developments in robotics, editorial says – The Washington Post
- Lost Your Health Insurance During the COVID-19 Crisis? Here Are Your Options – The Motley Fool
- El Paso virus cases jump to 35 as health leaders warn of increased risk of ‘community spread’ – KVIA El Paso