Mar 17, 2020 - Health

The coronavirus pandemic is a new kind of crisis

Illustration of IV drip with world map in its bag.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic is a disaster with no modern parallels, with no escape and no safe harbor. This may be the most sustained period of widespread public pain since World War II.

The big picture: Even the worst catastrophes we've experienced — from natural disasters to terrorist attacks — have happened in one place, at one time. But global reach of the coronavirus, and the societal and economic shutdowns it’s triggering, will touch everyone, everywhere, for a long time.

The coronavirus is already forcing major changes to our daily lives, and that will continue.

  • You could hear new urgency yesterday from President Trump, as he ditched the hopeful talk about a quick resolution and warned that the virus is truly serious.
  • The crisis was once expected to last weeks or two months. Now even Trump fears a long, sad summer: "[T]hey think August. Could be July. Could be longer than that."
  • Six counties in the Bay Area have issued “shelter in place” warnings, the strongest U.S. clampdown yet as a host of cities and states force bars, gyms and other public places to close.
  • Without school, travel, public gatherings or even the chance to eat dinner at a restaurant, we’re already seeing the rhythms of daily life upended.

As America came to grips with the extent of these social distancing measures, it’s natural to reach for historical comparisons. And those examples can offer the comfort that the U.S. has made it through dark times before. But we will be facing a new and different set of challenges this time.

  • We’re used to seeing terrible events befall a city, or a region — not the whole country all at once, let alone the whole world.
  • When that happens, we usually send supplies, material support and aid to the affected area — but there will be few such resources to spare during this outbreak.
  • Unlike a terrorist attack, this won’t strike in just one place. Unlike a hurricane, there’s no high ground to evacuate to.

It may be more instructive to go all the way back to World War II, which saw the strict rationing of consumer goods, full-scale mobilization of civilian industry, even "dim-outs" of New York's skyline.

  • The American public, of course, rose to the occasion during World War II. The question is whether we can do the same during now, at a time when the muscle memory of sacrifice has atrophied.
"This is the defining global health crisis of our time. The days, weeks and months ahead will be a test of our resolve, a test of our trust in science and a test of solidarity.”
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general

What’s next: A recession is likely — some say it has already started — and because a severe outbreak could force people to stay away from shops, gyms, restaurants, bars and travel for a long time, the economic hit could be enormous — affecting every sector of the economy for a long time.

  • The rapidly spreading virus will strain America’s health care system. Even a moderate outbreak could easily require most hospital beds and more ventilators than the country has available — and, again, there’s no good way to borrow excess supply from another country, because they’re all going through the same trauma, or will soon enough.

The bottom line: There is no escaping the public pain to come. We're just beginning an endurance test that has no clear end.

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