Mar 21, 2020 - Health

Even the best coronavirus scenario is terrible

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Sadly, the more we learn about the coronavirus pandemic, on both the medical and economic sides, the worse the best-case scenarios become.

Why it matters: Some readers tell us they think virus coverage has been overly dramatic. So we wanted to share with you the consensus of what the most clear-eyed, serious, optimistic people are saying, as a way to focus our minds. 

Tens of thousands of Americans die, we have double-digit unemployment for months, countless businesses die, retirements are wiped out, and the nation is saddled with once unimaginable debt.

  • That, folks, is the best case scenario we're facing.
  • That's if we're lucky — and doesn't even mention the lost graduations, honeymoons, weddings, and other important missed milestones.

Here's an example: A survey of epidemiology experts in academia, government and industry, posted by a scholar at UMass Amherst and reported by FiveThirtyEight, predicted that the number of cases reported by the end of this month would most likely fall somewhere between 10,500 and 81,500.

  • The survey was taken Monday and Tuesday.
  • We’re already right around 20,000 cases, so the lower end of those estimates is out the window.

The same survey anticipates about 200,000 deaths in the U.S this year, but experts have established a range that stretches from as few as 19,000 deaths to as many as 1.2 million.

  • A true best-case scenario would look a lot like the response in places like Singapore and South Korea, which were able to quickly “flatten the curve” and bring the number of new cases under control.
  • But the U.S. simply has not been doing the things that worked in those countries, so whatever our best-case scenario may be, it’s not that good.

Public health: The optimist's scenario involves a longer outbreak, but with fewer cases at a time.

  • We could use some pleasant surprises. Maybe experimental treatments will turn out to work. Maybe warmer weather will suppress the virus’ spread more than we expected. 
  • Those aren’t ridiculous possibilities, but it’s a fair amount of wishful thinking when all we have so far is an exponentially growing number of cases, and the certainty that we are under-counting those cases while they spread.

Economic havoc: Even under the optimist's scenario, the fallout for jobs and businesses will long outlast the medical calamity.

  • You know things are bad when CNBC reports: "Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin promised Wednesday that the U.S. will not have a 20% unemployment rate."
  • Mnuchin was dialing back a theoretical possibility without a federal rescue package — what he now calls "just a mathematical statement" — that he had floated in a closed-door meeting of Republican lawmakers.
  • Goldman Sachs said last Sunday that the S&P 500 could hit 2,450 in the next three months. That turned out to be the optimist's scenario. On Friday, the index closed below that level.
  • Axios Markets Editor Dion Rabouin reports that there's no precedent for this kind of hit to small businesses. So banks have no real way to model it — one reason that many estimates seem too rosy, and that the government may be underestimating the needed size of the fiscal response.

Duration: The stock market plummeted Monday after President Trump said the crisis could last until July, August or longer.

  • That turned out to be the optimist's scenario.
  • The next day, the N.Y. Times reported on a 103-page HHS response plan, dated three days before Trump spoke, that said the pandemic "will last 18 months or longer" and could include "multiple waves."

The bottom line: The optimist's scenario has summer as the light at the end of the tunnel. But with every day and every new data point, the upside scenario gets dimmer — and more distant.

— Courtenay Brown, Dion Rabouin and Bryan Walsh contributed reporting.

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