The Atlantic Daily: America Is Stuck in a Patchwork Pandemic

This type of splintered outbreak is psychologically perilous—and downright confusing.

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Joan Wong

The national COVID-19 curve tells one story. The state-by-state numbers tell another, far more nuanced one. This outbreak is waning in some places (New York and New Jersey), while growing in others (Texas and North Carolina).

We’re in the middle of what my colleague Ed Yong calls a patchwork pandemic,” a crisis that’s really a collection of interconnected smaller crises. Americans should not expect things to go back to normal swiftly, nor should they expect a unified national experience, he reports.

This type of splintered outbreak is “psychologically perilous”—and downright confusing. Here are three aspects of the pandemic, as explained by Ed, that make it particularly hard to grasp:

1. The disease progresses slowly.

May’s declining cases are the result of April’s physical distancing, and the consequences of May’s reopenings won’t be felt until June at the earliest. This long gap between actions and their consequences makes it easy to learn the wrong lessons.  

2. The pandemic is shaped by many factors.

Social distancing matters, but so do testing capacity, population density, age structure, wealth, societal collectivism, and luck. … No single factor can explain differences across nations or regions.

3. The disease spreads unevenly.

“Super-spreader events,” which are rare but pivotal, become especially important when cases dip. … If a state reopens and sees no immediate spike in cases, is that because it was justified, because insufficient time has passed, because other things went right, or because unlucky super-spreader events haven’t yet happened? In a patchwork, these questions will be asked millions of times over, and many answers will be wrong.

Ed also discusses the U.S.’s messy, patchwork response—and how structural inequities fueled this outbreak in some parts of the country. As usual, I strongly recommend you read his piece in full.


One question, answered: Will it be safe to swim in my local pool this summer?

Here’s the good news: The coronavirus can’t survive and spread in chlorinated pool water. The bad news is that it’s extra difficult to maintain and enforce a six-foot distance between people in and around the water—“at the pool,” Olga Khazan writes, “even normal adult behavior tends to devolve into joyous anarchy.”

Though your favorite water park is unlikely to be waving in the crowds, cities that haven’t already barred pools from opening this summer could consider restrictions such as requiring reservations and dividing people by lane. Still, some experts recommend skipping your dip altogether.

What to read if … you just want practical advice:

Tonight’s Atlantic-approved quarantine activity:

Lawrence Wright’s The End of October is a pandemic novel that’s oddly soothing, according to our culture writer Sophie Gilbert.

This email was written by Caroline Mimbs Nyce, with help from Haley Weiss, and edited by Shan Wang.

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