Epidemics reveal the truth of the societies they hit

In the U.S., I am afraid we might learn that neither our public-health system nor our “system” more broadly understood how to build feelings of trust. Even though we have the highest-tech health-care system in the world, even though we have the best surgeons and the best equipment, we have not created a public-health culture that induces confidence. The hospital system has been pared down to the bone; there is no extra capacity, and everyone knows it. If people have to pay to be tested, then many may refuse. If people have to be quarantined, they may escape.

Worse, instead of seeking to halt conspiracy theories, it is possible that our government will create them. The president has already called the coronavirus a “hoax” and indulged in different kinds of magical thinking. In one single speech about the coronavirus, Trump stated that “it’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear”; that “you know, it could get worse before it gets better”; that “we’ll see what happens, nobody knows.” If people heed him, we will be able to count the cost of that dishonesty and that magical thinking and measure it, in the numbers of deaths, in the spread of disease, in the numbers of people who ignore quarantines or precautions.

Though this is not the worst kind of epidemic imaginable, it’s good that we are learning these things now, because the novel coronavirus may turn out to be just a dry run.