The options are limited. Early inaction left the U.S. with too many new cases, and just one recourse: Press a societal pause button to buy enough time for beleaguered hospitals to steel themselves for a sharp influx in patients. This physical-distancing strategy is working, but at such an economic cost that it can’t be sustained indefinitely. When restrictions relax, as they are set to do on April 30, the coronavirus will likely surge back, as it is now doing in Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other Asian states that had briefly restrained it.
As I wrote last month, the only viable endgame is to play whack-a-mole with the coronavirus, suppressing it until a vaccine can be produced. With luck, that will take 18 to 24 months. During that time, new outbreaks will probably arise. Much about that period is unclear, but the dozens of experts whom I have interviewed agree that life as most people knew it cannot fully return. “I think people haven’t understood that this isn’t about the next couple of weeks,” said Michael Osterholm, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota. “This is about the next two years.”
The pandemic is not a hurricane or a wildfire. It is not comparable to Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Such disasters are confined in time and space. The SARS-CoV-2 virus will linger through the year and across the world. “Everyone wants to know when this will end,” said Devi Sridhar, a public-health expert at the University of Edinburgh. “That’s not the right question. The right question is: How do we continue?”