Okay, Now What?

Governor, Can’t We Please Go Back to Normal?
by Steve Weiner, 11 April 2020

I experienced my first proof-of-health checkpoint in Turkey on a recent escape from captivity to the beach. Under prior circumstances, being waved to the side of the road by masked police officers would have dampened the excitement of the afternoon excursion. Instead, I brandished my passport and confidently leaned forehead-first toward the officer gripping a pistol-shaped thermometer. Got my papers, ain’t got no fever. He recorded the identification numbers on an iPad and off we went. 

Leaving home for a bit of fresh air and a change of scenery requires a few extra steps these days. It’s difficult to suppress the urge to venture out and see what has become of civilization after we shut it all down. And as some curves appear to be flattening, there’s optimism that forcing society to live the introvert’s fantasy is working to reduce the spread. But there’s no concrete plan for what happens next and while COVID continues to silently lurk, we really only have three paths for the rest of 2020:

  • Path 1: Uncontrolled spread until we reach herd immunity (the default)
  • Path 2: Discover a vaccine or develop effective therapies so that people are no longer afraid  (unlikely) 
  • Path 3: Scale testing and contact tracing infrastructure and formalize social distancing and hygiene protocols (most likely)

For the time being, Path 1 has more or less been abandoned out of concern for overwhelming the healthcare system, but we could accidentally revert back onto Path 1 if government leaders decide to throw caution to the wind and open up society without a plan. We should all be rooting for Path 2, but most of us can’t really impact this course of action. Instead we need to embrace Path 3 for the foreseeable future in order to incrementally re-animate some parts of the world. It’s clear that our new way of life isn’t going to be whatever normal looked like pre-COVID. 

Countries the world over will implement enhanced surveillance systems to share data about infected people and who they may have been in contact with. This is already happening in South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Massachusetts has already released statewide standards and Google and Apple teamed up (!) to build a technology solution for a contact tracing (which, funny enough, doesn’t prevent a non-infected prankster from spamming the system and spreading fear). Time will tell whether a national contract tracing system in the US will be effective, necessary, and proportional

We’ll also settle in with the reality that isolation is the default and social distancing and mask-wearing will be required if interaction is unavoidable. It’s even more likely that generally limiting human contact and practicing improved hygiene for months will become habits (good!) or law (yikes!). Recall that the pre-boarding airport security process was once embraced when the memory of its justification was still fresh. Now removing your shoes before getting on a plane is, at best, an illusion of safety, but may just be a warped experiment of how to suppress the will of a crowd. Either way, bureaucratic safety protocols die hard.

Going forward, we will need to demonstrate proof-of-health in order to reopen the world. This’ll happen at both the geographic level to permit trade to flow across borders and at the individual level for all kinds of unforeseen things (like going on an afternoon trip to the beach). Some of these physical and administrative barriers are already being installed and, once there, they’ll be nearly impossible to remove. These new layers of scrutiny will undoubtedly increase friction and sow fear and mistrust in our daily lives. Looking beyond friction and fear from checkpoints and more societal surveillance, the magnitude of the economic catastrophe caused by this pandemic is becoming more clear each passing day. Because in addition to the public health crisis, now we’ve also got:

  • a labor market crisis
  • an education crisis
  • a housing market crisis
  • a commercial real estate crisis
  • a supply chain crisis
  • a demand crisis

Unfortunately — as evidenced by the election last week in Wisconsin — none of these compounding crises have served to improve the state of political partisanship in the US. When it comes to public officials, the pandemic is serving to separate the wheat from the chaff and it’s arguably never been more important who holds the office of Governor or Mayor. We’ll see what happens in November. Or maybe we won’t.

Voters in Milwaukee on Tuesday, April 7, 2020
Patricia McKnight/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

More to follow …

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To contact the writer, send an email to [s] at [veryscarce.com]