Officials in the U.S. have undermined hopes of a successful economic reopening because they’ve garbled public messaging, never clearly explaining why strict lockdowns were imposed in the first place. They’ve failed to communicate what the lockdowns are achieving for us, let alone what criteria should be used to lift them.

It’s intuitive to think there must be enormous benefits to something that’s crushing businesses and career dreams, creating long lines at food banks, disrupting education and imposing, for those cooped up alone or with abusive family members, a brutal psychological toll. And yet there was primarily one, relatively limited goal: Preventing transmission from spiking so sharply that hospitals overflow with patients. (As a secondary benefit, the disease should become less deadly over time as doctors improve their ability to treat it.)

Keeping people apart through voluntary social distancing or mandates to stay home can’t defeat the virus; it isn’t going away until a chunk of the population develops immunity. Once lockdowns are lifted, cases will spike here and there. That was always going to be true. But as long as hospitals don’t become overrun, lockdowns may have served their purpose.