A patchwork pandemic is psychologically perilous. The measures that most successfully contain the virus—testing people, tracing any contacts they might have infected, isolating them from others—all depend on “how engaged and invested the population is,” says Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins. “If you have all the resources in the world and an antagonistic relationship with the people, you’ll fail.” Testing matters only if people agree to get tested. Tracing succeeds only if people pick up the phone. And if those fail, the measure of last resort—social distancing—works only if people agree to sacrifice some personal freedom for the good of others. Such collective actions are aided by collective experiences. What happens when that experience unravels?
“We had a strong sense of shared purpose when everything first hit,” says Danielle Allen, a sociologist at Harvard. But that communal mindset may dissipate as the virus strikes one community and spares another, and as some people hit the beaches while others are stuck at home. Patchworks of risk and response “will make it really hard for the public to get a crisp understanding of what’s happening,” Rivers says.
In one future scenario, the nation splinters. When national news diverges from local reality, “suspicions about whether the epidemic was a hoax will find fertile ground in places with a more ambiguous experience of the disease,” says Martha Lincoln, a medical anthropologist at San Francisco State University. Confused people will retreat to the comfort of preexisting ideologies. The White House’s baseless attempts to claim victory will further divide the already fragmented states of America. “In the face of medical uncertainty, people make decisions by returning to their own groups, which are very polarized,” says Elaine Hernandez, a sociologist at Indiana University Bloomington. “They’ll want to avoid being stigmatized, so they’ll follow what people in their networks are doing [even if] they don’t really want to go out.”