The exit door

On a day of dispiriting news, the most unwelcome came from Northern China. The city of Harbin is locking down again after an outbreak in Heilongjiang Province. Heilongjiang is right on the border, so it’s likely that China will blame the spike on returning nationals; a story in Shanghaist points the finger at a young asymptomatic super-spreader who’d been studying in New York. Regardless of the source, the new surge in cases demonstrates that containment in China is far from total. They’re conceding an unpleasant truth that we don’t like to think about: until there’s a vaccine, there’s not going to be any grand reopening. This pandemic is going to come at us in waves.

The head of the CDC reminded us of this, too. Even after he was contradicted by the President, he stuck to his original statement: fall 2020 is going to be a challenge. Spikes in coronavirus will coincide with the arrival of seasonal flu. Some of the things we’ve learned during the past two months may help us ride the coming waves a little better than we’ve managed so far. But we’re going to face the autumn unarmed. Hydroxychloroquine has not turned out to be a magic bullet. Inoculation is still, at best, months away. As this epidemiologist makes brutally plain, we need to prepare ourselves for additional rounds of social and physical distancing. He doesn’t like it any better than you do.

What this means for the global economy is unclear, but it certainly isn’t hopeful. Efforts to force a hard restart in places where the virus is still spreading will almost certainly fail; efforts to restart in areas that have shakily recovered will probably fail, too. In China, people didn’t flood back to the stores and restaurants when restrictions lifted. Now that there’s a fresh outbreak in Harbin, Chinese consumer confidence will need to absorb another blow. Something similar, I am afraid, is bound to happen when the doors in New York City swing back open for business. Regardless of the prevalence and efficacy of contact tracing, our re-engagement with the world of commerce will be tentative. We’ll hear about a spike in cases in South Carolina, or New Mexico, and we’ll retreat even further into our protective crouches.

Alas, the only way out of the crisis is herd immunity: either occasioned by widespread vaccination (preferable) or by humans in terrifying numbers catching the coronavirus and developing antibodies. I’ve resisted this because a one-percent mortality rate applied to a global population of eight billion is… well, for the sake of my stomach, I’m not going to do that math. But mostly, and quite selfishly, I’ve resisted it because I don’t care for our household odds. If sixty to seventy per cent of humanity must contract the pathogen before the pandemic can burn out, that means I’m more likely than not to get it, which further means that I’m more likely than not to pass it on to Hilary.

She doesn’t like it when I think like this. She doesn’t like to be treated like a hothouse flower; she’s used to being independent. Even during the hardest days of her treatments and recovery from surgery, she was determined to stand on her own. Nevertheless, in our quieter moments, we acknowledge that our physical circumstances have changed, and our outlook needs to change with them. If I’m more protective now than I was when we were running around like lunatics in the ’00s, it’s not (just) because I’m paranoid. I take some grim comfort in the emerging consensus that suggests that coronavirus illness hits men harder than it hits women — though I am sure that doesn’t comfort her at all. I will keep gathering information, and I will keep on doing everything I can to make sure that Hilary is in the thirty per cent of humanity that never needs to get acquainted with the pathogen.