If America had any sense, we would be locking down again now

Call it what you like — the third wave, the third crest of the first wave, or wave 1(c), but the coronavirus pandemic is once again completely out of control in the United States. Friday, October 23 set a new one-day record with over 85,000 confirmed COVID-19 infections, and the seven-day trend of new cases is accelerating upwards. Most of the Midwest and half of Appalachia are seeing explosive spread, while even formerly successful states like Massachusetts are losing their grip. Multiple states are being forced to open field hospitals or ration care.

It is extremely aggravating to remember, but it remains the case that we could at least keep a lid on this thing, and save tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives, by following the same pandemic control strategies experts have been advocating since March. None of that will happen at the federal level until January at the earliest, but individuals, state, and local governments can at least take partial steps to limit the damage.

All we need is the same four-part strategy that has been obvious since March. First, the places that are fully in the grips of exponential spread should reimpose a severe lockdown — and I mean the real thing, where people are prohibited from leaving their homes without a pass, which has never happened anywhere in the country. This is the only way to throttle a truly out-of-control outbreak. Second, we build up test-trace-isolate systems where they don’t currently exist, or need work (which is most of the country). Third, everyone wears masks when in public and in close proximity to others at all times (ideally N95s or surgical style, but at least a cloth covering). These are probably not strictly necessary when running or biking outside, but they should be mandatory at any public space indoors like a grocery store — as new research demonstrates, they protect other people and the wearers. If you wear a (proper) mask you are less likely to get COVID, and more likely to have a mild case if you do.

Finally, the government should keep everyone financially whole with an indefinite economic rescue package. Prevent bars, restaurants, nightclubs, airlines, and other businesses dependent on in-person activities from going bankrupt with subsidies, and protect individuals with super-unemployment, $1,200 checks, and so forth. Just put the in-person economy on ice until the virus is under control, or until there is an effective vaccine that has been delivered everywhere.

It’s unclear exactly why cases are accelerating now, but probably the weather has a lot to do with it. Contrary to my expectations (at least so far), several wealthy countries in Western Europe that had previously contained the pandemic, like France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, have since lost control. Some are already resorting to a second lockdown. It seems that even in generally well-governed European states, governments were too lax in reopening the economy (especially indoor dining) and reluctant to impose new controls when infections started to rise. As we have seen over and over again, the slightest hesitation can lead to disaster. The virus spreads extremely fast, and contact tracing systems can easily be swamped if there are too many cases to manage, leaving only brute force lockdowns as a last resort, with all their significant drawbacks.

As China has demonstrated several times, a hair-trigger aggressive response is far more effective than half-hearted half measures. Every time it has seen a flare-up of the virus, the state has stepped in with gargantuan mass-testing and isolation efforts — testing entire provinces in a matter of days, and throwing any positive cases in mandatory quarantine, as well as strict lockdowns if community spread gets started — to root out and squash the virus. It’s a coercive approach, but it gets the bad part over as quickly as possible. As a result, its economy is recovering relatively quickly — while the U.S. and European countries remain in the doldrums, with much of their citizenry still voluntarily avoiding human contact for eight months and counting.

Several democratic countries, like Taiwan, New Zealand, and Korea, have also managed to keep the virus contained without such draconian measures. Other European countries that remained cautious, like Norway and Finland, have seen only fairly small spikes so far.

Of course, there is no chance whatsoever that any of this will be done in the United States at a federal level, or in most of the states, in the immediate future. President Donald “Superspreader” Trump is outright denying there is any new spike, while Vice President Pence is refusing to isolate despite being exposed, again, to a known COVID-positive person. “We are not going to control the pandemic,” admitted White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows recently. It also appears there is little chance of getting another round of economic rescues through before the election, and none at all between then and January 20, if Biden wins.

But we as American citizens can wear masks, and put on our coats to dine outside instead of risking indoor service. States and cities can, where possible, keep up their testing and tracing. Doing what we can to stop the pandemic around our deliberately broken government won’t eradicate the virus, but it might still save many lives.

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