Coming to Grips

He cut a fine figure: uncommonly tall with long, unhurried strides. I watched from my bike as I took the curve, creating a pathway among joggers and strollers, the families in clusters and friends walking six feet apart. The tall man lifted his hand, but the couple didn’t see: they were facing forward, arms suspended, their torsos slowly rotating in the meditative movement of tai chi. I craned my neck, alert as the Asian couple shifted their attention to the cop. Their arms drooped to their sides. I was too far away to hear what was said.

The next time I cycled back, the couple was gone and the officer was patrolling an empty soccer field. He and his colleagues were out in force that day, a gorgeous spring afternoon. They were ensuring the latest government orders were strictly adhered to: people must maintain a distance of two metres unless they live together, and parks are for exercise only—not sitting, being outside or, apparently, doing tai chi. Violations can result in a $1000 fine.

Given the surge of Covid-19 cases, I’m happy to obey these measures. I’m happy to participate in the societal effort to stop the spread of this disease, to spare the lives of thousands of people while supporting the efforts of frontline workers, who perform under extreme strain, risking their lives as they care for others.

But it’s important that we understand the strategy for ending the quarantine.

I feel vile for saying that right now: none of us wants to challenge the effort to flatten the curve. We can’t let ourselves get weak or selfish as we work toward a singular goal. And that goal is no less than saving the health-care system from collapse.

Because that’s what’s at stake. Let’s be clear about that: we’re not staying home to save individual lives. This quarantine has been put in place to prevent the total collapse of our health-care system. But we need to do more than that. Our leaders must create a strategy to guide us out of this quarantine with our economy and social cohesion intact. Because those are at stake, too.

These are not the alarmist writings of a novelist stuck inside her tiny apartment. This is the reasoned analysis of a team at Harvard University: economists, political scientists, philosophers, public-health specialists, all of whom have come together to create a series of White Papers that give us a grip on the immensity of the issue, putting language around it so we know how to move forward. As it is, most of us—including our politicians, businesses, and media—are responding to a threat whose contours we can’t yet see. And this fact is causing tremendous anxiety, along with a dangerous lack of effective policy.

The White Papers warn that ongoing quarantines will erode public trust, and ultimately backfire. Governments need to provide a concrete timetable, stating when the quarantine will be lifted or re-evaluated, and what criteria will be used to determine whether renewal is necessary.

According to epidemiologists, the quarantine won’t be lifted any time soon—not with the current strategy of Western governments, which have been incapable or unwilling to adopt two successful strategies of Asian countries.

Specifically, we’ve been incompetent in our effort to test our populace, and unwilling to consider the effective use of contact tracing and isolation—a strategy that entails extensive monitoring of citizens’ movements via technology. That’s what’s needed to end the lockdown. Otherwise, collective quarantine could last through the summer.

That estimate is derived from the need to give hospitals time to cope with the first wave of cases, as well as the second predicted to come when restrictions are eased.

Realizing that a five-month quarantine is unpalatable, some public-health specialists are calling for a rotating cycle in which one location is under lockdown for two months, followed by a month of release. This cycle would last through 2020, and well into 2021, until a vaccine is developed and widely available.

Getting antsy? Squirrely? Rabid with fear? Humans are animals, after all. But we’re animals imbued with exceptional intelligence, and the capacity for ethics. So where does that leave us?

Well, it leaves me chomping at the bit to read what these White Papers offer as a strategy for approaching this crisis in a way that saves lives, preserves the fundamental institutions in society (including the health-care system), and stabilizes the economy. That’s what I’ll be writing about in the days to come.

April 7, 2020