This Isn’t Going To End Soon

I don’t want to be grimmer than necessary, but let’s get realistic about one thing. If a place said they’re closing for two weeks, or if an April event has been postponed to May, here’s my advice: Don’t count on it.

When my kids’ school said they were closing for two weeks, I interpreted that as “closed until further notice.” Sure, for planning purposes they had to set a date to reevaluate, but that’s not really my concern. Of course, they had to extend the closure—and I kept hearing parents complaining about the changing dates, as if they expected and deserved a clear message. Folks, we’re in uncharted territory.

This pandemic is new, and these closures and stay-at-home orders unprecedented. This isn’t like the flu season, where we know when it tends to start, when it tends to peak, and how long it lasts. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We only know that it’s just getting started.

Back in February, there was a chance that closures might be short lived. “If it were possible to wave a magic wand and make all Americans freeze in place for 14 days while sitting six feet apart, epidemiologists say, the whole epidemic would sputter to a halt,” the New York Times reported last week. But society has not frozen in place, not even around the world. Some schools remained open, some global cities have not closed non-essential businesses, some people kept going to parties, and everywhere people have been keeping up necessary interactions like seeking emergency medical care.

So we don’t know what happens next, but it’s clear that our epidemic curve is still on the upswing. It doesn’t matter which tracker you look at, or whether testing is capturing most of the cases or only a tiny fraction: every graph is climbing, and there’s no way for cases to suddenly plummet to zero. We’ll be in this for a while.

How long? Nobody can say, and honestly it’s too early to put stock into any specific prediction. Maybe school will start up again in September, maybe it won’t. Maybe testing efforts will finally be able to catch up enough to find out how many people truly have the coronavirus, and this will enable efficient contact tracing to stamp out transmission South Korea style. Even in the best case scenario, though, it will be a while before we can truly return to normal.

So, here we are, in a situation where there’s no way to accurately plan for the future. All we can do is take things one day at a time. While I was writing this post, I happened across Liz Neeley’s excellent article on how to talk to your friends and family about the coronavirus, in which she highlights a famous quote from former prisoner of war James Stockdale:

Stockdale later attributed his survival to the fact that he “never lost faith in the end of the story,” unlike those “who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

If Stockdale is right, embracing the uncertainty of a situation may help us get through it.


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