Along with making the hard pause bearable, we also need to enable a soft return toward normalcy, starting soon. That return will be slow and gradual; it will look different in different places, and it will mean living with the virus, not putting it behind us. The scenario President Trump has fantasized about, that “it’s going to disappear; one day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear,” is not going to happen.
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At the same time, however, the pause we are in cannot last, even for the medium term. The notion that this is how we handle the virus until a vaccine is available—that the most intense social distancing with no school or work for large segments of society will go on for many months—is absurd. No policy maker should take it seriously. Rather, the purpose of the hard pause is to enable the gradual resumption of life to start soon.
That should help us think about how to use this period in terms of public health as well as economic assistance. This is a time for building capacity for testing and treatment, expanding ICU beds, and focusing our efforts on prevention and containment.
We need to invest in a massive, ongoing testing regime. In addition to today’s RNA-based throat-swab diagnostics, which can spot active infections, we need to deploy blood tests for antibodies. Such tests, which will be available soon, would tell us who has been exposed and recovered and might possess some immunity. That would allow for a much more fine-grained sense of where the epidemic is raging intensely and where loosening some restrictions would be safe.
At the same time, both public investments and regulatory exemptions need to prioritize the exploration of treatment options that could reduce the severity of the worst cases and lower fatality rates. And we will need to think about prevention in terms of how to enable people to resume their lives, rather than just how to encourage them to stay home.
Telling the public that face masks don’t work, for instance, makes sense when you’re trying to avoid false confidence and to save masks for health-care workers. But simple masks actually can reduce transmission dramatically, and the language of public-health experts around such measures will need to start changing. When you ease into taking the subway to work again, or nervously attend that first baseball game over the summer, you may well want to wear a mask.
Measures such as these, and the return to a degree of normalcy that would be their aim, will increase the risk of infection. They are more dangerous than staying home. But they can keep that risk manageable. And the risk will grow easier to bear as a vaccine becomes available, and as our knowledge of the virus grows and lets us adapt to its distinctive dangers.