The Crisis Could Last 18 Months. Be Prepared.

The shutdowns happened remarkably quickly, but the process of resuming our lives will be far more muddled.

Todd Heisler / The New York Time​s / Redux

Get your battle rhythm, I keep telling myself, as I put on my oversize sweatpants for the third day in a row. Staying inside, away from our offices, routines, and community, feels jarring even for those who, on a rational level, understand the need for extreme social distancing. The good side is having more family time. But everything seems upended, even to homeland-security professionals who argued for upending everything to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Just as seasickness abates once you can see the shore, the disruptions that the country is now experiencing would be easier to manage if we knew they would end soon. The community-isolation effort happened remarkably fast—within days, whole communities all but closed down, and earlier this week the federal government finally recommended the same. On Thursday, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the entire state of California to stay home “until further notice.” But the way the crisis ends will be far more muddled. There isn’t going to be one all-clear signal—and certainly not one anytime soon.

As the days and weeks in isolation go by, and the shock of What just happened? turns to Family time is overrated, people will become more insistent on knowing two things: When will the pandemic end? And when can we go back to normal? Those questions have different answers, and the answer to the latter—far from being a purely scientific decision—will be guided by ice-cold moral and political calculations that nobody wants to discuss out loud.

From a public-health standard, the pandemic will not end for another 18 months. The only complete resolution—a vaccine—could be at least that far away. The development of a successful vaccine is both difficult and not sufficient. It must also be manufactured, distributed, and administered to a nation’s citizens. Until that happens, as recent reports from the U.S. government and from scientists at London’s Imperial College point out, we will be vulnerable to subsequent waves of the new coronavirus even if the current wave happens to ebb.

None of which means that people now hunkered down at home will keep doing so through late 2021. The economic consequences of an indefinite lockdown are unsustainable. And at a certain point, the emotional tensions that staying home imposes upon families, as spouses grate upon each other and children get bored and fall behind on their schoolwork, become a danger to domestic harmony, and maybe even to everyone’s sanity.

At the moment, we are just playing for time. Whether social distancing is working will be clearer in a month than it is now, but even then we will not know to a moral certainty when adults can safely go back to the office and children can go back to school. Which is partly why employers, university officials, and others have given such widely varying time frames for how long they are shutting things down—two weeks, until the end of April, until the end of the academic year, until sometime later.

Two weeks, for what it’s worth, is just a way of breaking the bad news easily. If anything, we are likely to see more draconian distancing measures if the data start to show success. The goal of social distancing, as everyone now knows, is to “flatten the curve”—to keep the number of COVID-19 cases from spiking faster than the medical system can mobilize to handle them. But a flatter curve is longer; a failure of social distancing would mean the peak comes sooner—at a horrifying cost of lives—but also that Americans are back outside sooner.

If entirely suppressing the coronavirus is a public-health ideal, crisis management is the homeland-security standard. The goal is to minimize risk, maximize defenses, and maintain social cohesion at the same time. In a society that must start moving again at some point, emergency-management planners looking at the metrics may seem heartless.

In the military, commanders must make calculations about acceptable losses; the benefits of a mission have to be weighed against the certainty that some soldiers will be lost. We don’t have such language in the homeland-security world, but trade-offs are still inevitable. The wrenching decision to open up again—to accept more exposures to the coronavirus as the price of an earlier economic revival—is simply a judgment call. It is too late to prevent tragedy entirely; our goal is to manage it within the limits of scientific progress and public tolerance.

In the weeks to come, we should see a surge not only of patients, but also of supplies. The federal government has two main jobs right now: to get testing kits distributed nationwide, and to quicken the flow of money and expertise to support state and local efforts and expand the capacity of the health system. Go big or go home—the classic warning against half measures—is an old emergency-management maxim, and current circumstances give it an ironic twist: Because Americans are at home, the federal government needs to go big.

Managing the pandemic well doesn’t mean eradication; it means that our ability to mitigate how many people die—our ability to isolate those sick, test their contacts, care for them in available intensive-care beds with available respirators—is working. Social distancing, currently our primary tool to manage the burdens on our health-care system, will eventually give way to efforts to quickly identify those infected, before they can expose others, and also to treat those already exposed. Even before a vaccine is available, the United States will fall into a steady-state suppression effort—which is to say, life will go on, even as public-health officials play whack-a-mole with individual outbreaks.

So, that’s the plan. Sometime between now and when a vaccine becomes available, restaurants and schools and offices will reopen. It won’t happen all at once, as if by official decree, but as individual households and workplaces conclude one by one that they’ve had enough—and that the surge in testing kits, intensive-care beds, and other resources is finally sufficient to meet the need. That won’t take a year and a half. But I expect to be in these sweats for at least another month—and I’m planning for two.