The Atlantic’s Ed Yong is writing some of the best pandemic coverage; I’ve previously highlighted his “How This Pandemic Will End.”
His latest tackles a question many of us are pondering, whether we realize it or not: Why is the coronavirus so confusing?
Yong breaks the reasons down into six category: the virus, the disease, the research, the experts, the messaging, the information, the numbers, and the narrative. In that final category, Yong draws a comparison of which my generation is probably the youngest to remember:
In the final second of December 31, 1999, clocks ticked into a new millennium, and … not much happened. The infamous Y2K bug, a quirk of computer code that was predicted to cause global chaos, did very little. Twenty years later, Y2K is almost synonymous with overreaction—a funny moment when humanity freaked out over nothing. But it wasn’t nothing. It actually was a serious problem, which never fully materialized because a lot of people worked very hard to prevent it. “There are two lessons one can learn from an averted disaster,” Tufekci says. “One is: That was exaggerated. The other is: That was close.”
Last month, a team at Imperial College London released a model that said the coronavirus pandemic could kill 2.2 million Americans if left unchecked. So it was checked. Governors and mayors closed businesses and schools, banned large gatherings, and issued stay-at-home orders. These social-distancing measures were rolled out erratically and unevenly, but they seem to be working. The death toll is still climbing, but seems unlikely to hit the worst-case 2.2 million ceiling. That was close. Or, as some pundits are already claiming, that was exaggerated.
How wide, and consequential, is the gap between “That was exaggerated” and “That was close”? And what contributed to the gap in the first place? These are the goals of Yong’s piece, and he introduces the piece by stepping back to consider the persistent uncertainty, which feels unimaginable when we reckon with how all-consuming the pandemic has become in our lives:
But much else about the pandemic is still maddeningly unclear. Why do some people get really sick, but others do not? Are the models too optimistic or too pessimistic? Exactly how transmissible and deadly is the virus? How many people have actually been infected? How long must social restrictions go on for? Why are so many questions still unanswered?
The confusion partly arises from the pandemic’s scale and pace. Worldwide, at least 3.1 million people have been infected in less than four months. Economies have nose-dived. Societies have paused. In most people’s living memory, no crisis has caused so much upheaval so broadly and so quickly. “We’ve never faced a pandemic like this before, so we don’t know what is likely to happen or what would have happened,” says Zoë McLaren, a health-policy professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. “That makes it even more difficult in terms of the uncertainty.”
The piece should be required reading. We’ll all be better for it.
Read it here:
If you liked what you read, please sign up, follow me on Twitter (@CaryLiljohn06) and then forward to friends to help spread the word.