America is on the road. But is it on the road to economic recovery or a pandemic relapse?
Fans of “On the Road” — Jack Kerouac’s 1957 classic of beatnik literature — will recall that its giddy, low-punctuation style is sometimes a little hard to follow. The same might be said of the data Americans are currently generating, some of which undoubtedly points to a rapid (if not quite V-shaped) recovery, and some of which seems to indicate either a second wave of Covid-19 infections or simply the continuation of the first wave.
The two are not separate stories, but rather a single, intertwined narrative. The best title for this tale was devised by my Hoover Institution colleague, the economist John Cochrane. He called it “The Dumb Reopening.” A smart reopening is the sort that has been possible in countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, which were so quick to ramp up testing and contact tracing that they didn’t need to do lockdowns in the first place. Among European countries, Germany and Greece have also successfully adopted these methods, which ensure that any new outbreaks of Covid-19 can quickly be detected, so-called super-spreaders isolated, their recent contacts swiftly traced and tested, and the outbreaks snuffed out.
Other signs of smartness are the persistence of behavioral adaptations by ordinary people, such as social distancing and wearing masks. We know that these practices, which can be adopted by citizens without any government decree, are effective in restricting the spread of the virus SARS-CoV-2.
Less widely appreciated is that social distancing is more effective as policy than lockdowns, as a forthcoming paper in the journal Nature shows. This is also the implication of work by researchers at Oxford’s Blavatnik School who show that there is no correlation between the stringency of government measures and containment of Covid-19. Measures designed to protect groups that are especially susceptible and vulnerable to Covid-19 -- notably the elderly, especially those with pre-existing conditions –- are also smart.
A dumb reopening eschews all such precautionary measures. So is that really what the U.S. is doing? The answer is pretty much yes. Testing has improved, but contact tracing is primitive. And social distancing and mask-wearing are least prevalent where reopening is happening fastest.
The economists I like best prefer data to fancy models. These days they are in clover because the age of the Internet and the smartphone is already a golden era of high-frequency data about economic behavior. When I say, “America is on the road,” I can say it with conviction because mobility data generated by Google, Apple and less well-known tech players such as SafeGraph show it.
Recent official statistics on unemployment and retail sales surprised economists, but they shouldn’t have: The mobility data were already pointing to rapid recovery some weeks ago. In the trough of pandemic panic, between mid-March and mid-April, Apple’s Mobility Trends (which track changes in routing requests to Apple Maps since Jan. 13) pointed to declines in driving and walking of around 60%. (For public transport the decline was 89%.) But since late April, the trend for foot and road traffic has been steadily upward. Requests are now up 12% and 33%, respectively, relative to January. (Transit requests are still down 54%.)
SafeGraph offers a more granular view of foot traffic, based on aggregated and anonymized smartphone location data. Relative to Jan. 2-3, Americans were walking between 60% and 70% less by the beginning of April. But in Dallas and Houston, foot traffic is now just a quarter below the start of the year. General merchandise stores, counter-service restaurants and supermarkets are almost back to where they were.
But perhaps the most useful mobility data for economists come from Google’s Community Mobility reports, which show how visits and length of stay at different places have changed relative to a Jan. 3-Feb. 6 baseline. By subdividing destinations into six categories — retail and recreation, grocery and pharmacy, parks, transit stations, workplaces and residential — the Google data help us zero in on what matters economically.
No recovery was ever driven by visits to parks (up 53% since January, not surprising given the improved weather in most places). Grocery and pharmacy visits weren’t much impacted the pandemic, as they were essential. The big story is retail and recreation: down 49% nationwide at the trough (April 5), but now down just 16%.
America Hitting the Stores
Mobility data predicted the recent positive statistics on retail sales. In May, the monthly jump in sales reported by the Commerce Department was 17.7%; the monthly jump in Google’s data for retail and recreation visits was 24.4%.
New and old data alike are voraciously devoured by Wall Street analysts. Combined with the Federal Reserve’s multiple liquidity and credit facilities, which are designed to shore up the prices of pretty much all financial assets, they explain why U.S. stocks are back where they were in early March, before the pandemic panic. Mr. Market is acting as if Covid-19 is over. The trend you can infer from the Google data points to July 10 as the date when consumption will be back to normal.
The problem is that Covid-19 isn’t over. As some of us have been warning for some time, the failure to contain the spread of the virus in the U.S. has made a second wave inevitable in many of those places where case numbers had fallen significantly, and a continuation of the first wave inevitable in those places where they had not. The national data for new cases and deaths don’t show this, as they are dominated by improvements in the Northeast (New York and its neighbors).
Eyeballing the latest data on confirmed cases, I see second waves in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, as well as second ripples in Hawaii, Kansas and Montana. First waves continue in California, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah. Trends in case numbers, positive tests and hospitalizations look especially worrisome in Arizona, Florida and Texas.
As Americans hit the road in increasing numbers, including longer-range trips to vacation destinations, we can also expect rising numbers of cases in states with hitherto low numbers of Covid-19 infections, such as Montana.
So what’s going to happen next? One possibility is that Americans will recoil from reopening when they see worse data on cases, hospitalizations and mortality in their states — or, more likely, if they see worse cable news reports or Internet clickbait about those things. (Watch for breaking news on Arizona’s intensive care unit capacity.) Any actions by state or municipal authorities to slow down the rush back to normality (mandatory masks in Raleigh, North Carolina, for example) may add to public anxiety.
Polling by Civiqs shows that many Americans — Democrats much more than Republicans — are still “extremely concerned” or “moderately concerned” about Covid-19. Eminent economists — notably Michael Spence, who has sought to match mobility and infection data — look at the dumb reopening and conclude that it will end badly. Spence and his co-author Chen Long warn that “the U.S. is heading for a situation comparable to the Great Depression.” They are in good company: Hardly any leading academic economist believes in the V-shaped recovery story, where output snaps back as far and as fast as it has fallen.
The alternative, and I suspect more likely, scenario is that Americans carry on getting back to normal and tacitly accept further excess mortality as just a cost of doing business until a vaccine is available. That would be bad news for the significant number of Americans who, because of their age and/or pre-existing health problems such as obesity, hypertension or kidney disease, are potentially at serious risk from Covid-19. But it would not be without precedent.
Although many commentators and scholars have looked back to the 1918-19 influenza pandemic for insights into our current predicament, it seems clear by now that SARS-CoV-2 is not as deadly a virus as H1N1 was just over a century ago. Estimates of the infection fatality rate of Covid-19 still range widely, from 0.02% to 0.4%, according to one recent survey (though some recent European serological studies imply higher rates), but the fatality rate of the so-called “Spanish Flu” was probably between 1.8% and 2.2%. Put differently, 675,000 deaths in the U.S. were attributed to influenza and pneumonic complications in 1918-19 of which around 550,000 were “excess deaths.” An equivalent excess death toll in 2020 would be greater than 1.7 million, compared with a figure to date of around 100,000.
Closer in terms of likely mortality is the less well-known “Asian Flu” pandemic of 1957-58. That caused up to 116,000 deaths in the U.S. (the estimates for excess morality vary widely), which would translate into 215,000 deaths in 2020, roughly what I expect the final U.S. Covid-19 death toll to be.
It is quite probable you have never heard of that pandemic, even though its worldwide death toll was between 700,000 and 1.5 million. This is all the more surprising as, unlike SARS-CoV-2, the H2N2 virus of 1957-58 killed young people. As in most influenza pandemics, significant numbers not only of the very old (over 65) but also of the very young (under 5) died. In terms of excess mortality relative to baseline expected mortality rates, however, it was teenagers who suffered the heaviest losses.
The biggest difference between 1957 and 2020, however, lies in the government and public response to the new pathogen. President Dwight D. Eisenhower did not declare a state of emergency in the fall of 1957. There were no state lockdowns and no school closures. Sick students simply stayed at home, as usual. Work continued more or less uninterrupted; AT&T reported peak absenteeism of 8%. Nor did the Eisenhower administration borrow to the hilt to fund transfers and loans to citizens and businesses. The president asked Congress for a mere $2.5 million (around 0.0005% of 1957 GDP) to support the Public Health Service in case of an epidemic.
True, there was a recession that year, but it had little if anything to do with the pandemic. Eisenhower’s job approval rating deteriorated, declining from about 80% to 50% between January 1957 and March 1958, and his Republican Party sustained severe losses in the 1958 midterms, but no serious historian of the period would attribute these setbacks to the pandemic.
The national mood of insouciance in the face of a new and contagious disease might be summed up in the phrase coined the year before by Mad magazine’s second editor, Al Feldstein: “What, Me Worry?” Huey “Piano” Smith and His Clowns even had a minor hit with “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.”
Whereas public health officials reached a consensus in March of this year that only full “lockdowns” could avert disaster, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers declared on Aug. 27, 1957, that there would be “no practical advantage in the closing of schools or the curtailment of public gatherings as it relates to the spread of this disease.” As a Centers for Disease Control official later recalled, “ASTHO encouraged home care for uncomplicated influenza cases to reduce the hospital burden and recommended limitations on hospital admissions to the sickest patients … most were advised simply to stay home, rest, and drink plenty of water and fruit juices.”
As today, there was a race to find a vaccine. Unlike today, however, the U.S. had a head start, thanks to the acumen of one exceptionally talented and prescient scientist, Maurice Hilleman, who was chief of the Department of Respiratory Diseases at the Army Medical Center (now the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research) from 1948 to 1957. The first New York Times report of the outbreak in Hong Kong — three paragraphs on page 3 — was on April 17. The Army Medical Center received its first influenza specimens from Hong Kong on May 13. Nine days later, Hilleman had identified the new strain. As early as July 26, doctors at Fort Ord in California began to inoculate military recruits. Approximately 4 million one-milliliter doses were released in August, 9 million in September, and 17 million in October.
It was a different America, no question. For one thing, many Americans today would appear to have a much lower tolerance of risk than their grandparents and great-grandparents six decades ago. As Clark Whelton has recalled:
For those who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, there was nothing unusual about finding yourself threatened by contagious disease. Mumps, measles, chicken pox, and German measles swept through entire schools and towns; I had all four. Polio took a heavy annual toll, leaving thousands of people (mostly children) paralyzed or dead. There were no vaccines. Growing up meant running an unavoidable gauntlet of infectious disease. For college students in 1957, the Asian flu was a familiar hurdle on the road to adulthood … We took the Asian flu in stride. We said our prayers and took our chances.
But the really striking contrast is how much more competently the Eisenhower administration responded to the pandemic of 1957 than its counterpart today, which lurched from insouciance in January and February to panic in mid-March. This is not to suggest that the threats posed by the two pandemics were identical, nor to suggest that we should simply have dusted down the “What, Me Worry?” playbook. The smart playbook for Covid-19, as we have seen, used early, widespread testing and contact tracing to stamp out super-spreader events, while at the same time protecting the vulnerable.
Rather, having inflicted an immense economic shock on ourselves with lockdowns, we have now tacitly decided to act as if the pandemic is over by returning to normal behavior, largely eschewing the social distancing and mask-wearing that could limit further contagion at a minimal cost. We are, in short, hitting the road as if it was 1957 again, implicitly heading for herd immunity — and substantially more excess deaths — until a vaccine turns up.
As it happens, Kerouac’s “On the Road” was first published in 1957. The book’s second line is: “I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about.” By the end of this year, the way things are going, several million Americans will be able to say those same words about Covid-19. Sadly, roughly 200,000 won’t be able to.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
The American death toll is rising. An unpopular president fears for his re-election chances. The U.S. sends men into space. Down on Earth, the economy is in trouble. Racial tensions boil over into rallies, looting and violent confrontations with police in cities across the nation, intensifying political polarization and widening the generational divide. The president considers invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act, which empowers a president to deploy the armed forces and National Guard in any state.
Yes, as writers across the political spectrum such as David Frum, James Fallows, Max Boot, Julian Zelizer and Zachary Karabell have pointed out, 2020 is looking a lot like 1968. For Vietnam, read Covid-19. For Lyndon B. Johnson, read Donald J. Trump. For Apollo 8’s successful orbit of the moon, read the docking of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon with the Space Station. And for Washington, Chicago and many other cities in 1968, read Minneapolis, Atlanta and many other cities in the last few weeks.
Ah yes, interjected Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen, but today we are dealing with a pandemic. Actually, they had one in 1968 as well: the Hong Kong flu, caused by the influenza virus A/H3N2, which was ultimately responsible for more than 100,000 excess deaths in the U.S. and a million around the world. It’s easy to forget that Woodstock, the following year, was a super-spreader event.
True, since Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in the street outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis on the night of Monday May 25, there have been protests and riots in dozens of American cities. More curfews have been imposed than in any year since, you guessed it, 1968. But is this the correct analogy? Or is the baby-boomers’ obsession with their own exciting teenage years leading us, not for the first time, to think too much about the late 20th century and not enough about other, more relevant periods?
Like the over-used Weimar analogy, allusions to 1968 are a kind of shorthand — just a superior way of saying, “This is really bad.” I’m betting that most of the people bandying these analogies about haven’t ever pored over documents from 1968 or 1933.
For millennia, historians have noted that pandemics can destabilize the societies they strike. Of the Athenian plague of 430 BC, Thucydides wrote: “The catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.” Defeat at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War was followed by a period of political instability, culminating in a temporary breakdown of Athenian democracy in 411 BC.
The two great plagues that struck the Roman Empire — the Antonine Plague (165-180 AD), probably a smallpox pandemic, and the Plague of Justinian (542 AD), which was a bubonic plague — also weakened the structures of Roman rule, allowing barbarian invaders to make significant inroads.
Recent scholarship on England after the Black Death of the 1340s shows that efforts by the landowning class to offset the effects of chronic labor shortages led to escalating tensions that ultimately erupted in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
Across Europe, the Black Death prompted a wave of millenarian movements, notably the flagellant orders, groups of men who roamed from town to town whipping themselves in the belief that acts of penance might ward off the Last Judgment. These religious cults often had a revolutionary undertone and came into conflict with local temporal and spiritual hierarchies.
The devastation caused by waves of bubonic and pneumonic plagues — which killed more than a third of the population in many parts of Europe — also led to widespread violence, particularly outbreaks of anti-Semitism. In 1349, for example, the Jewish communities in Cologne, Frankfurt and Mainz were wiped out. Conspiracy theories circulated widely that the Jews had caused the Black Death by poisoning the water supply. The Jews of Strasbourg were offered a choice between conversion and death. Those who refused to convert were burned alive in the Jewish cemetery.
The recurrence of bubonic plague in the 1890s led to conflicts between British rulers and their subjects from South Africa to India. In Honolulu and San Francisco, it led to measures that discriminated against the local Asian population. Such ethnic scapegoating often occurred in situations where a disease seemed to take an outsized toll on a specific community. The 1907 and 1916 polio epidemics hit wealthy, white New York especially hard. (In poorer populations, infants were routinely exposed because of bad sanitation, and therefore were more likely to have antibodies.) Southern European immigrants, particularly Italians, were blamed for the outbreak.
In short, history shows that pandemics all too often exacerbate existing social tensions between classes and ethnic groups. It also provides numerous examples of quarantines and public social restrictions intensifying citizens’ mistrust of the state. In 19th-century Europe, cholera riots were frequent, from St. Petersburg in 1831 to Donetsk in 1892. In North America, smallpox quarantines led mobs to burn down hospitals and police stations. The residents of Marblehead, near Boston, twice rioted against smallpox inoculation, in 1730 and 1773.
The spread of Covid-19 from China to the rest of the world, and the generally inept responses of the U.S. authorities to the pandemic, have combined to create perfect conditions for urban unrest. The disease has disproportionately hurt minority communities, especially African-Americans. In the U.S., as in the U.K., people of color are more likely than whites to work in contagion-exposed, low-skilled, “essential” occupations; to live in crowded conditions; and to have co-morbidities such as obesity and diabetes. The economic consequences of lockdowns have also hit African-Americans harder than white Americans. You really don’t need 1968 to explain 2020.
As a white, middle-aged, upper-middle-class immigrant, I’m hardly the person to speak to the politics of race in America. So I turned to an African-American friend, the economist Roland Fryer, whom I’ve known since we were colleagues at Harvard. 1
In 2016, he published a brilliant but controversial paper which argued that the police did not disproportionately use lethal violence against black people, though they were more likely to use non-lethal force against them. (Shootings made up more than 90% of fatal incidents.) A paper published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences lent strong support to Fryer’s thesis.
He has a new, unpublished paper that looks at a perverse effect of investigations into police shootings. I asked Fryer to walk me through the argument.
“If you have a police shooting that goes viral online but isn’t investigated,” he explained, “then nothing changes — levels of police activity and crime are about the same. But if you have a viral shooting that is investigated, then police activity plummets, and crime goes up dramatically.” In just five cities – Baltimore; Chicago; Cincinnati; Ferguson, Missouri; and Riverside, California -- this led to excess homicides of almost 900 people in the subsequent 24 months, 80% them black, with an average age of 28.
It's a dangerous Catch-22: You're damned if you don't investigate “viral” incidents, and in even worse shape if you do.
How does Fryer interpret the current protests? “People are fed up,” he told me. “They are frustrated by the disparities they see in educational outcomes. Frustrated by the disparities they see in criminal justice. Frustrated by racial disparities in life expectancy. We are all to blame — this happened on our watch.” And when you add to that the fact that Covid-19 disproportionately affected the black community: “Folks have had enough. People are very much on edge.”
Such conversations, as much as any article or book, change the way I look at an issue. For years, I have confidently said that 1968 was much worse than the present. But could it be the other way around — not in terms of standards of living or rates of violence, but in terms of politics and the perceptions that shape it? That was a question put to me by Coleman Hughes, another African-American friend, whose recent essays on race in America have been essential reading.
In calling himself the “president of law and order” in the White House Rose Garden last Monday, Trump (or more likely his speechwriter) was echoing a mantra of Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 campaign. But Trump is the incumbent, unlike Nixon in 1968. The pandemic and the recession have hit Americans on his watch, just as surely as the Vietnam War escalated on Lyndon Johnson’s. A pandemic at home is very different from a distant war which, in mid-1968, more than a third of Americans still supported. The devastating economic consequences of the lockdowns make the early signs of inflation in 1968 seem trivial. The electorate is radically different from that of 1968: older, but also more ethnically diverse because of immigration and variations in birth rates. Traditional news media did not cover violent protest sympathetically in 1968. In all these respects, Trump’s chances of re-election should look worse than Johnson’s.
Yet on March 31, 1968, Johnson announced that he would not seek a second term because, as he put it on prime-time television, “There is division in the American house now.” Do not expect any such capitulation from Donald Trump. Division in the American house is precisely what gives him a shot at four more years.
Unlike in 1968, in other words, urban unrest with a racial dimension might actually save a beleaguered incumbent. The current wave of protests is in many ways a repeat of more recent events — Ferguson 2014, Charlottesville 2017 — and its main significance may be to shift the American political conversation away from the Trump administration’s incompetent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, back to the terrain of the culture war, where Trump is an experienced combatant.
Even in 1968, merely using the phrase “law and order” was to invite accusations of racism. In the case of a president who last week fantasized about a MAGA mob joining the fray outside the White House, the charge of insincerity seems well-founded. Trump is indifferent to the law by nature; he thrives on disorder. And he understands much better than his opponent how to spread his message through the complex networks of online “influencers” — many of whom promote conspiracy theories — through which more and more Americans receive their news.
Finally, and perhaps crucially, unlike 52 years ago, November’s election seems very likely be a two-horse race. There is no George Wallace, the segregationist candidate who took millions of former Democratic votes in 1968, ensuring Nixon’s triumph. Any last-minute third-party candidate -- Green, Libertarian or otherwise -- is unlikely to garner anything like Wallace’s 13.5% of the popular vote.
The result of 2020’s election will look very different from 1968’s. The nightmare is a result like that of 2000: too close to call and decided in the courts.
History strongly suggests that pandemics tend to widen class and ethnic divisions. Covid-19 is no exception. Small wonder a hideous incident of police brutality ignited a wave of outrage: harder hit by the disease, harder hit by the lockdown and the recession, African-American communities were ready to boil over. Scenes of mayhem in nearly every major city in America ought not to bode well for an incumbent on whose watch excess mortality has already surged by 26%, and who is now presiding over an unemployment rate three and a half times higher than in 1968.
Yet the return of the culture war might just prove to be the deus ex machina that extricates Trump from the quagmire of Covid-19. If so, Trump’s many detractors in the commentariat - who have long hoped that he is Richard Nixon without the second term - may come to rue the day they drew the wrong historical analogy.
Everyone knows The Great Wave, the most famous of all Japanese works of art, even if they don’t know the name of the artist. His name was Hokusai and he published The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki nami-ura) at some point between 1829 and 1833. It’s a woodblock print of the genre ukiyo-e, which translates, rather beautifully, as: “Picture of the floating world.”
Look closely at The Great Wave and you will see that it towers above the cowering oarsmen in three wooden fishing boats. They are on their way back to Kanagawa (now Yokohama). Mount Fuji is just visible in the distance. These days we are all a bit like those Japanese fishermen, cowering beneath a giant wave. The wave in question is the pandemic created by the virus Sars-CoV-2 and the deadly disease that it can cause, Covid-19.
For the past two months, ever since the epidemiologists persuaded the politicians to take the threat of Covid-19 more seriously than the usual winter wave of influenza, we have been captivated by wave-like images: graphs depicting the early, exponential growth of infections and deaths, and then the flattening of the curve as we practise social distancing and implement economic lockdowns.
These graphs were at first generated by the epidemiologists’ models. Now, however, we have the actual numbers of confirmed cases and deaths. They don’t perfectly fit the predicted curves — no model is perfect — but they roughly do.
In most of the worst-affected places in the developed world, such as New York, it now seems that the great wave has crested. In terms of new cases, hospitalisations, intubations and deaths, the peak is now behind us. For America as a whole, the great wave of new cases has clearly reached a plateau since the first week of April.
In the UK, too, it seems probable — making all the necessary adjustments for lags in the data — that April 8 was the peak of the wave in terms of mortality.
The situation is even more encouraging in a number of European countries, notably Austria, Denmark and Germany, which is why their citizens — unlike New Yorkers and Britons — can now look forward to a partial return to normality in a matter of days.
A number of American states are already moving in the same direction. In Montana, the beautiful and thinly populated state to which I retreated six weeks ago, churches will reopen for worship today and most retail businesses will be able to resume work tomorrow.
So is that it, then? The wave crested; most of us survived; now back to normality? These were the words of the US vice-president, Mike Pence, on Wednesday: “We truly do believe, as we move forward with responsibly beginning to reopen the economy in state after state around the country, that by early June, we could be at a place where this coronavirus epidemic is largely in the past. Americans are going to be able to enjoy a good summer.”
Hang on, not so fast.
In history, all the great pandemics have come in waves, including the Black Death of bubonic and pneumonic plague in the 14th century and smallpox in the 18th century. The first recorded plague outbreak — in Athens in the 5th century BC — had three waves: in 430BC, 429BC and 427 to 426BC.
In some cases, the second wave was worse than the first. Take the great influenza of 1918-19. The first official recorded outbreak was at a Kansas army base, Camp Funston, in March 1918. But the global peak of mortality was in the second wave of October and November. A third wave affected some areas of the world in early 1919, principally England and Wales and Australia.
The 1957-58 influenza pandemic hit Hong Kong in mid-April 1957. It reached America in June and produced a surge of deaths among teenagers that autumn. But there was a second wave in January-March 1958. There were further spikes of excess mortality in early 1960 and early 1963.
The main reason to expect a second wave of Covid-19 in 2020 is that we are nowhere near herd immunity anywhere. Even in New York state, the worst-affected part of North America, the infection rate is little higher than 21%, according to the most recent testing.
As lockdowns ease and people return to work and school, it is almost inconceivable that we won’t see rising infections, illnesses and deaths. Indeed, we are already seeing that in some parts of Asia, notably Singapore and northern China.
The only real debate is how far warmer weather is going to dampen the contagion in the northern hemisphere. I have read all the academic papers on this subject and remain unconvinced. We are learning that this virus spreads most rapidly indoors, in confined spaces such as subways, restaurants and hospitals. (Hence closing parks and beaches was pretty pointless and probably, on balance, harmful.) So it’s possible summer won’t radically reduce the infectiousness of the virus, unless we all move our desks outside.
Alternatively, if weather does matter, then the second wave may come in October, when the weather cools and when most schools and universities attempt to go back to normal.
“There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” said the director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, in an interview last week. “We’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time.”
Now, just think of the political implications of that scenario. A second wave would be the death blow to the happy talk of a “V-shaped” economic recovery. And it would arrive just in time to discourage elderly voters — who lean Republican, remember — from going to vote.
A poll published last week showed the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, neck and neck with the US president, Donald Trump, in six key states: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. On three key issues — handling the pandemic, preventing another one and making healthcare more affordable — Biden narrowly leads Trump. And this after weeks when Biden has been more or less invisible, Trump ubiquitous.
We have all heard far too much in recent weeks about bending the curve, as if there were only one curve. In the history of pandemics, I am afraid to say, there are very few cases of “one and done”. The only questions that remain open are exactly when the second wave will come, how big it will be and if it will be followed by a third.
Look closely at Hokusai’s The Great Wave, which depicts not a tsunami but a so-called rogue wave. The artist is most certainly not implying that, after the great wave breaks, the sea will be a millpond.
Until we reach herd immunity or find and distribute a vaccine, the same will be true of Covid-19, alas.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and managing director of Greenmantle
In Liu Cixin’s extraordinary science- fiction novel The Three-Body Problem, China recklessly creates, then ingeniously solves, an existential threat to humanity. I remember thinking it was an odd plot when I read it last year. It is a Chinese scientist who reveals Earth’s location to the hostile planet Trisolaris, but it is another one who thwarts the Trisolaran invasion and saves the world.
This is not how sci-fi plots work in western literature. The bad guys (the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese or just the aliens) do bad stuff and then the good guys (they speak English) save the world. One of the many things I learnt from reading The Three-Body Problem is that, in this respect as in so many others, China is different. It’s OK for China to screw the world in order to save it.
The non-fictional threat to humanity we face today is not, of course, an alien invasion. The coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 does not come from outer space, though it shares with the Trisolarans an impulse to colonise us. The fact, however, is that the first case of Covid-19 was in China, just as the first messages to Trisolaris were sent from China.
You may, if you are gripped by our current decadent obsession with cultural inclusivity and sensitivity, not like the fact that Donald Trump called it “the Chinese virus”. But he is as entitled to call it that as people in 1968 were entitled to refer to the influenza A (H3N2) pandemic of that year as the “Hong Kong flu”, because Hong Kong was where the first case was recorded.
As in The Three-Body Problem, China caused this disaster, but now wants to claim the credit for saving us from it. Liberally exporting testing kits (some of which don’t work) and face masks (most of which probably do, but I still got ours from Taiwan, thank you very much), the Chinese government is intent on snatching victory from the jaws of a defeat it inflicted.
Not only that, but the deputy director of the Chinese foreign ministry’s information department had the gall to endorse a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in America. On March 12, Zhao Lijian tweeted: “It might be [the] US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” Zhao also retweeted an article claiming that an American team might have brought the virus with it when it participated in the World Military Games in Wuhan in October.
The worst of it is that some people in the western world are so unhinged by Trump derangement syndrome, or so corrupted by Chinese money, or, in the case of Italy, so disillusioned by the less than altruistic responses of their fellow Europeans to their exceptionally severe Covid-19 outbreak, that they actually swallow this toxic stream of hypocrisy and mendacity. Was anything this year dumber than the mayor of Florence’s “Hug a Chinese” campaign in February?
For a flavour of the Chinese Communist Party’s line, just take a look at the headlines in last Friday’s China Daily: “Fighting Covid-19 the Chinese way”; “Chinese high-tech helps world combat pandemic”; “Nation uses tech prowess to help world fight virus”; “Stigmatising Beijing will not help Washington”; “US shirks responsibility with wild finger-pointing”. And my favourite: “Xi plants trees in Beijing, urging respect for nature.”
Respect for nature? Let us try to restore sanity with six questions that we should ask Xi Jinping the next time we Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangout or WeChat him.
First, what exactly was going in Wuhan that led to the initial emergence of Sars-CoV-2? If the virus originated from a bat at one of the disgusting “wet” markets (where wildlife intended for human consumption is sold alongside chicken and beef) that your regime inexplicably has not shut down, that is bad enough. But if it originated because of sloppy practices at the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, that is worse. It is insanity for research on potentially lethal zoonoses such as coronaviruses to be going on in the heart of a vast metropolis like Wuhan.
Second, how big a role did the central government play in the cover-up after it became clear in Wuhan that there was human-to-human transmission? We now know there were 104 cases of the new disease, including 15 deaths, between December 12 and the end of that month. Why was the official Chinese line on December 31 that there was “no clear evidence” of human-to-human transmission? And why did that official line not change until January 20?
Third, after it became clear that there was a full-blown epidemic spreading from Wuhan to the rest of Hubei province, why did you cut off travel from Hubei to the rest of China — on January 23 — but not from Hubei to the rest of the world?
January is always a peak month for travel from China to Europe and America because of the lunar new year holiday. As far as I can tell from the available records, however, regular direct flights from Wuhan continued to run to London, Paris, Rome, New York and San Francisco throughout January and in some cases into February. You have lost no time in restricting international travel into China now that Covid-19 has gone global; your approach was conspicuously different when you were exporting it to us.
Fourth, what possessed your foreign ministry spokesman to start peddling an obviously false conspiracy theory on social media and why has he not been fired? Even your ambassador to America disowned this fake news. We’ll watch with interest to see which of these diplomats gets your backing.
Fifth, where exactly are the tycoon Ren Zhiqiang and Wuhan doctor Ai Fen, to name just two of the Chinese citizens who seem to have vanished since they expressed criticism of your government’s handling of Covid-19?
Finally, how many of your people has this disease really killed?
Now, I don’t expect straight answers to these questions, any more than we got straight answers from the Soviet Communist Party after Chernobyl. But I do think we need to keep asking them, if only to vaccinate ourselves against the other kind of virus currently emanating from China — the disinformation that Xi has learnt, from his Russian pal Vladimir Putin, how to spread through the internet.
China has a problem. It is not The Three-Body Problem, a brilliant book that reminds us that the Chinese people are capable of great literature, just as Chinese researchers are capable of great science. The same was true of the Russian people under communism.
China’s problem, like Russia’s before 1991, is the “One Party Problem”. And as long as a fifth of humanity is subject to the will of an unaccountable, corrupt and power-hungry organisation with a long history of crimes against its own people, the rest of humanity will not be safe.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford