Apr 2, 2020 - Health

How pandemics are worse than wars

Felix Salmon, author of Edge

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

What happens after a war? Two weeks ago, that question may have resulted in cautiously optimistic answers about America's ability to bounce back from its current crisis. Now, things aren't so clear.

Why it matters: Wars are — generally — over when they're over; then the post-war rebuilding can begin. Pandemics don't work that way; their effects reverberate for decades.

What's happening: Billions of people around the world are living in fear of a lethal and invisible enemy. They're sequestering themselves inside their homes and avoiding human contact not just because they are being told to do so by their governments, but because they have internalized the need to do so out of simple self-preservation.

  • Extreme measures are popular. 74% of Jordanians approve of their government's measures, which started with a round-the-clock curfew. The curfew now lasts from 6 pm until 10 am, and driving is banned during the day.
  • New Zealand's very strict lockdown is also popular.

Between the lines: "Getting righteous about other people’s inadequate social distancing is how we manage our fear," Leslie Jamison writes in the NYRB. That, too, is visible in New Zealand, as well as all over Twitter.

  • Righteousness requires self-certainty. Once people are certain of something, it takes years for those heuristics to decay. A mistrust of mingling with strangers — or even with friends — is likely to linger for a generation.
  • That's going to have long-lasting economic repercussions in entertainment, sports, hospitality, travel, including mass transit, and myriad other sectors.
  • Even a vaccine won't end the fear. Vaccines aren't 100% effective, viruses mutate, and fear is not governed by rational calculation.

The big picture: Americans who lived through the Great Depression were scarred for life by the experience, and they exhibited a level of caution and frugality that only their boomer children would eventually overcome.

  • After the coronavirus crisis, we're similarly likely to enter what Allianz economic adviser Mohamed El-Erian characterizes as a "greater emphasis on resilience and a move away from efficiency."
  • Economically speaking, that's likely to weigh on any recovery, making it risk-averse and sluggish.
  • Unlike a war's V-Day, the end of the pandemic won't be greeted with euphoria. It won't even be possible to pinpoint when the end arrives.

The bottom line: It's easier to switch an economy off than to switch it on.

Go deeper

Mental health screenings are rising during the pandemic

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The advocacy group Mental Health America says it's seen a big increase in anxiety and depression since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Why it matters: The pandemic and ensuing lockdown have triggered increased loneliness and isolation while also making in-person help harder to access.

The risk asset rally continues as stock market rebounds

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Risk assets have jumped over the past week and continued their rally on Wednesday, with the S&P 500 gaining for a fourth straight day and posting its highest close since March 4, while the Nasdaq ended the day just 1.4% below its all-time high.

What it means: If it hadn't been evident before, Wednesday's market action made clear that the bulls are back in charge.

Trump's troubles grow, spread

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

President Trump is confronting the most dire political environment of his presidency, with his support dropping fast from Texas to Wisconsin, even among his base of religious and older voters. 

Why it matters: Top Republicans tell Axios that Trump's handling of the nation's civil unrest, including his hasty photo op at St. John's Church after the violent clearing of Lafayette Park, make them much more worried about his chance of re-election than they were one week ago.