Mar 18, 2020 - Health

The coronavirus is an endurance test with no clear end

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Two aspects make the COVID-19 pandemic unlike any disaster we've experienced in memory: its global nature and its unknown duration.

Why it matters: As the coronavirus spreads across the country, we'll need to fight a medical war on all fronts at the same time, stressing our ability to respond. And we may need to keep up that fight — and the disruptive social distancing accompanying it — for months or longer.

Background: It's tempting to search for historical precedents, like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina.

  • But as much as the morning of Sept. 11 shifted the course of history, most Americans were directly untouched by the attack and its aftermath. A month after 9/11, U.S. stock markets had regained their pre-attack levels.
  • Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,800 people and cost an estimated $161 billion in current dollars, making it the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history. But those affected could find safety and aid outside the disaster area, and America's economy barely experienced a blip.

Be smart: COVID-19 will not be like those experiences, both in terms of the disease itself and how we're forced to respond to it.

  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state has the most confirmed cases in the U.S., warned on Monday of an "impending catastrophe when this wave of growth crashes on the hospital system." But while neighboring states in a conventional disaster would be able to lighten New York's load, now every governor and local leader knows they need to prepare their own systems for the coming crash.
  • The pandemic, and the responses needed to contain it, is also set to cause perhaps the only other global catastrophe beyond a major war: a worldwide recession. The stock market has plummeted, and across the U.S., applications for unemployment benefits are multiple times normal levels.
  • "This is really the first truly national disaster aside from war or the 1918 pandemic," says Scott Knowles, a disaster expert at Drexel University.

Waging a multifront health and economic war against the pandemic will be difficult enough. But scientists warn we may need to keep up that fight for months longer.

  • A startling study published by Imperial College in London forecast well over a million deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. if the disease were largely allowed to run its course. Strict suppression efforts could significantly reduce that toll, but such measures might have to be in place until a vaccine could be widely distributed — as long as 18 months.
  • The New York Times reported on a federal plan presented to President Trump that warned of critical shortages of medical equipment and consumer items during the pandemic. On Wednesday, Trump told reporters he would invoke a Korean War-era law to force industry to ramp up production of medical supplies.
"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 at a media briefing

The bottom line: It will be a long haul.

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