What is America’s true pandemic status? Senators reflected major issues in questions they asked national disease expert of sorts Anthony S. Fauci on May 12th, put forth in Amber Phillips’ “The 5-Minute Fix” in that day’s Washington Post. If places resume activity “too early,” per Fauci, “there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control, which in fact paradoxically will set you back not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery.” We don’t know when a vaccine could be ready, “but development is moving extraordinarily quickly,” and those now in early testing could prove successful “by late fall or early winter,” which, per Phillips, is “super fast.” (However, many others say it could be years away – see, for example, Stuart A. Thompson’s April 30th New York Times “How Long Will a Vaccine Really Take?”.) We can expect that “40 to 50 million tests a month” will be performed by September. Unlike in many other countries, the rate of infections in the United States is not clearly declining, and the current tally of deaths, about 85,000, is more likely to be an undercount than an overcount. “Evidence stacking up” says people do get immune from the virus once they have had it, though maybe not permanently, and, when asked if it will ever be “completely eradicated,” Fauci said, flatly, “no.”
All of the above points to what business folks would call a paradigm shift, from waiting for a vaccine, giving it to everyone, and then fully reopening and resuming everything, to gradually allowing more people to be closer in public, the rate varying greatly with the activity, the setting, and the location. It may now be perfectly fine for a wider range of businesses to come back now in the likes of Montana, if people wear masks and stay six feet apart, but Madison Square Garden rock concerts may wait for 2022 or later. There will be plenty of legal and personal disagreements, but those are healthy, and despite some recurrences being inevitable we will generally progress as we grope into the future.
But what is that future? Three pieces in recent weeks give us ideas. The most recent and largest, “The Cities We Need” from the New York Times Editorial Board on May 11th, gets its worth from documenting a left-wing wish list rather than being constructive. Harsh, perhaps, but I wish such Times articles could stay away from complaining about inequality (a natural American cultural outcome), result and anecdote-driven accusations of racism, and the delusion that we will want, after this harrowing experience, to unite against climate change, and deal with problems in a reasonably bipartisan manner. This editorial, which printed out to 19 pages, boiled down to almost nothing.
The second, Uri Friedman’s “I Have Seen the Future – And It’s Not the Life We Knew” on May 1st in The Atlantic, shows how that publication, despite being historically at least as liberal as the Times, can set aside any platform and get to the true issues. Here, Friedman showed how in China’s city Wuhan, where the coronavirus started and has since mostly departed, and elsewhere such as in Denmark where new case numbers are now very low, “life returns in dribs and drabs, and the new normal is not the old normal.” People in these places are still wearing masks and frequently washing their hands, and where schools are open, students cannot touch each other. The real point here is that we should not wait for everything to come back as before but adjust to the new limitations while doing what we can.
Better still was Derek Thompson’s April 27th “The Pandemic Will Change American Retail Forever,” also in The Atlantic. Forever is a long time, but until the vaccine is distributed, the changes Thompson showed here have excellent chances of taking hold. One will affect our most densely populated cities, particularly New York, as restaurants and other businesses must become less crowded and will therefore generate less revenue, resulting in current rents being far from affordable, meaning they, along with the values of storefront real estate, will crash. Another is not a change, but “the big acceleration” of “preexisting trends,” such as fewer shopping malls, the obsolescence of department stores, and “the big-business takeover of the economy” as, realistic levels of government assistance or not, “one survey… found that just 30 percent of them expect to survive a lockdown that lasts four months.” It is companies like “Amazon, Walmart, Dollar General, Costco, and Home Depot” that have the cash and the structure to outlast competitors, making the pandemic “a toxin for underdogs and a steroid for many giants.” With fewer distinctive businesses and immigration halted, Tennessee Williams’s attribution that, except for New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans, all other American cities were the same will become more apt than ever. Restaurants themselves may become less significant, and many, even on the high end, will stay takeout-only. There will be more and more deliveries of almost everything. As a result of advantages of living in them going away, people may leave cities in large numbers, resulting in, strangely, currently hopelessly gentrified places like Greenwich Village going back to their bohemian roots.
Will these things materialize? If a vaccine is indeed pervasive within a year, many will not. Otherwise, we may indeed be starting a new chapter of American life. Be prepared for it.