But the bigger question isn’t how long our shutdown will last; it’s what will follow it. In theory, lockdowns of the kind that are now in place in much of the country are designed to contain an outbreak before it gets out of control — this is why China instituted its shutdown in January. But even relatively modest spread of a disease requires more than simple lockdown; it requires an aggressive program to identify those infected, isolate them, and monitor those they may have come into contact with, to be sure those people aren’t themselves spreading the disease. This is the “test and trace” method of pandemic containment; among public-health experts, it is the ideal. But in the U.S., and indeed throughout Europe, as well, the pandemic has progressed much too far for this approach to work. And so — again, in theory — the current lockdowns could provide another opportunity, as well: buying the country time to ramp up a comprehensive testing regimen. We would shelter in place until such a program was ready to go, then reenter “normal” life through that portal of medical surveillance. This program would be a dramatic change to American life — obligatory temperature checks, intrusive testing, and mandatory isolation in quarantine camps for anyone who’d even come into contact with a positive case — but it is the fastest path out of our current predicament. Beyond Twitter, the periodic suggestion from Trump’s executive pals that we should “reopen” the economy, and a few op-ed pages sketching out vague pathways, there is no sign of any real plan to do it at any level of government.
The Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Romer has suggested that, while imperfect, an aggressive testing regime without “tracing” would also be effective, at the population level, allowing a country like the U.S. to emerge from shutdown without imposing quite as aggressive a medical surveillance state. That is potentially promising, since the latter would be enormously challenging at the logistical, legal, and cultural levels here. But the U.S. is very far from instituting that kind of testing regimen. The only COVID-19 testing being done anywhere in the country is of symptomatic patients coming to doctors and hospitals. Nowhere are we doing the kind of “community” testing Romer envisions, nor are we testing for coronavirus antibodies to confirm how many people have already had otherwise undetected cases of COVID-19. And since we are still so hopelessly short on testing equipment needed to even test all the patients complaining of symptoms, we are very, very far from being able to even imagine a massive nationwide rollout of testing that would allow us to not just swab everyone but continue to swab everyone pretty regularly over the next few months.