This is war.
That is the clear message from governments around the world that have locked down their populations and ordered businesses shuttered. It is the new reality for corporations that are repurposing their facilities to manufacture ventilators, masks, and hand sanitizer to beat back the coronavirus. It is the battle cry of celebrities—and legions of less famous people—urging their fellow citizens to sacrifice their social lives for the common good.
Many people will want to know in the next few weeks how the war effort is going. Are infections still rising exponentially, or are we flattening the curve? Is the economy headed for another depression, or are we poised for a swift bounce back? In short: Are we winning?
The frustrating answer is that we don’t know—and we might not know for a while.
Many of us have heard of “the fog of war,” a term coined by the 19th-century Prussian military writer Carl von Clausewitz. It refers to the idea that war is often conducted in a haze of uncertainty: Militaries do not fully understand either their enemy’s threat or their own capacity to combat it.
What we’re experiencing now is the fog of pandemic. The officials tracking COVID-19 are swimming in statistics: infection rates, case-fatality ratios, economic data. But in these early stages of the fight against the coronavirus, these figures each have their own particular limitations. We are already seeing how, in the haze of confusing data, political leaders are trying to marshal that uncertainty to override the advice of public-health experts. Indeed, President Donald Trump seems eager to seize on anything that can justify his push to reopen public life in mid-April, perhaps while daily cases are still increasing.