The first message from the mainstream media about the coronavirus was to compare it to the flu. The second was to tell us to “bend the curve”, which meant asking people to take measures to quarantine themselves voluntarily, in an effort to slow the epidemic to a level that wouldn’t overwhelm the capacity of the nation’s healthcare system.
With several analyses now pointing to why this strategy is dangerously naïve – basically even assuming the most conservative infection rates and generous impacts of self-quarantine – this strategy has little chance of preventing an Italy-like situation. Reports out of Seattle, the US city most hard hit by the virus so far, is already straining its healthcare resources to keep up.
On Friday, the president declared a state of emergency, freeing up billions in aid to state governments, some of which have declared states of emergency themselves. But the likely failure of the “bend the curve” response raises the question of what measures might actually work.
For starters, mandatory in-home quarantines, forced closure of businesses, public transit closures, and cities being put on lockdown could all be on the table in the coming weeks. So far nothing like the lockdowns in France, Italy and Spain have been implemented in the US. Despite intense speculation this weekend about whether the White House could be announcing something along these lines, those rumours were traced to a hack of the Department of Health and Human Services, Bloomberg reported. The source of the hack has not yet been identified, though many speculate that it may have come from China.
As of Monday morning, several states have begun shuttering restaurants and other businesses, though delivery services are allowed to remain open. Most of these states are on the Eastern Seaboard; New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Maryland, with others further inland expected to follow suit soon. Los Angeles has also asked restaurants and entertainment venues to close, though this has not been made mandatory yet.
There is also the issue of the normal institutions of law and order facing the same sort of issues as the healthcare system. Courthouses in several jurisdictions have already suspended hearing cases, and police departments are preparing to self-isolate. Apart from the quarantine measures limiting the ability for the law and police systems to function, the virus itself is likely to take a toll: if they are infected at a similar rate as the general population, that would have an enormous impact. For both medical support and public order, the military is likely to be called out to some extent, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has already activated the National Guard.
One bit of good news is that a trial of a coronavirus vaccine began on Monday.
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