Apr 18, 2020 - Health

The fog of coronavirus

Illustration of various people in a fog

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

We're fighting the greatest public-health crisis in a century, and we barely understand our enemy. We cannot afford to stay in lockdown until a cure or vaccine arrives — but anybody trying to reopen our cities needs information that is frustratingly difficult to find.

The big picture. The single biggest obstacle to reopening the economy is a lack of visibility: We don't know the scope of the pandemic itself, or its economic fallout, or how its trajectory will change as we embark upon an ad-hoc effort to reopen the economy.

Where it stands: The Trump administration's plan for reopening the American economy explicitly calls for "up-to-date data" — but very few state or local leaders will actually have strong data on which to base their decision-making.

We don't know how many people the coronavirus has killed, or how many people have had it.

  • The official tally of over 37,000 deaths is too low, because it's based on people who died after testing positive for the coronavirus, but we don't know how low.

We don't know how many Americans have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus shutdown.

  • The official tally is 22 million new applications for unemployment benefits. But millions more haven't been able to make it through the application process, or haven't tried.
  • The biggest employers will be able to rehire their legions of workers, but the bigger concern is the businesses that will never be able to reopen. We don't know how many of them there will be.

We don’t know when we'll have a treatment, whether summer will tame the spread, or whether the virus could return in the fall even stronger. We don't know whether we're immune once we've had it, or for how long.

  • We don't know whether tech will allow us to trace it, or whether enough Americans would sign up for that, even if it does.
  • We don’t know when it’ll be safe to fly, go to a game, or pack into a school or a church. 

Be smart: It’s shocking and a bit scary how much we do not know, despite how much we now do know.

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