Sep 23, 2020 - Health

America's halfway coronavirus response

Animated gif of the American flag as a loading screen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Some of the same technological advances that have enabled us to partially weather the economic and health tolls of the pandemic may be paradoxically discouraging us from taking fuller measures.

Why it matters: Thanks to tech like video chat and automation, a large portion of the population has been able to mostly escape the effects of the pandemic — and even thrive in some cases. But far too many of us risk being left further behind as the virus spreads.

What's happening: Earlier this week, the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. alone passed 200,000, eclipsing some of the worst-case projections from the start of the outbreak.

  • And yet, as my Axios colleague Felix Salmon wrote recently, Wall Street believes the pandemic recession is already over, and even with a recent dip, the stock market has largely recovered.

The reality is that both the human and economic costs could have been so much worse. Imagine, for instance, if the SARS outbreak in 2003 had gone global with the same rough profile as COVID-19.

  • 17 years ago there was no Zoom and no Slack, no easy way for white-collar work to be done remotely.
  • Barely half of Americans at the time even had basic cellphones, just 61.8% of households had a computer, and only 30% had what was then a high-speed internet connection.
  • There was no easy way to get food and other consumer items delivered to the home, and there were far fewer robots to do the work of vulnerable humans in factories and businesses.
  • Slower genetic sequencing technology would have made it much harder to identify and track the virus, and the idea that a vaccine could be ready within a year of the first case would have been impossible.

The big picture: A COVID-19 pandemic in 2003 would have presented the world and the U.S. with an impossible choice: pursue social distancing and experience even far greater economic havoc than we're seeing now, or try to weather the virus and watch the death toll climb.

So in many ways, we're fortunate that this is happening in 2020. But not all of us are.

  • 30 million Americans remain on unemployment rolls, and a recent poll by NPR and partner organizations found very substantial portions of Americans surveyed reported their savings had been depleted.
  • Overwhelmingly, these are Americans whose jobs can't easily be done remotely, even with 2020 technology, and who work for businesses decimated by the effects of social distancing.
  • While Zoom and other apps allow for remote education that wouldn't have been possible in 2003, few experts believe schooling via a screen is equivalent to in-person instruction even when it works, and the long-term cost of school closures is likely to stretch into the trillions in the U.S. alone.
  • Despite those grim numbers, Congress looks to be unable to pass more coronavirus stimulus spending.

My thought bubble: As much as the technology of 2020 has helped blunt some of the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also paradoxically held us back from making the hard choices that would be needed to fully beat the coronavirus in a more just way.

  • Would we be so willing to let reopening schools take a backseat to less vital economic activities if we couldn't lean on the simulacrum of schooling that is remote education?
  • Would political division around the coronavirus be so deep if the health and economic effects of the pandemic were more evenly distributed around the country?
  • Would we have taken a harder approach to the pandemic if we didn't have the hope of a vaccine on the horizon — even though that vaccine is likely to only be a partial solution at best, at least initially?

Even as some of us are carrying out our jobs by Zoom and ordering grocery delivery from Amazon, tech and industry have sometimes struggled to produce the more prosaic products that could actually keep us safe from the virus, like masks and tests.

The bottom line: The uniquely dysfunctional government and politics of 2020 bear a major responsibility for how the pandemic has unfolded in the U.S. But we've also followed the lead of our tools to do what seems easy, as opposed to what is necessary.

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