The Hard Road Ahead
Political scientist Yascha Mounk is downcast. Writing in The Atlantic, he says he has been holding out hope that this or that thing would be the miracle we needed to defeat the pandemic, but now he’s saying we need to resign ourselves to the sad fact that the path out of this Covid-19 crisis is going to be long and hard. Excerpts:
There was real reason to indulge in each of these hopes. But in the past several days, a series of developments have undermined the factual basis for all of them. So I am, finally, starting to reconcile myself to a darker reality: The miracle of deliverance is not in sight.
Herd immunity? Consider the price:
Experts estimate that for a population to reach herd immunity, up to 80 percent of it would have to be exposed to the coronavirus. Even if the virus has a fatality rate of a little less than 1 percent, this means that letting it spread through the population of the United States would cause about 2 million deaths.
There are no treatment drugs on the horizon either. So:
The only way to restart the economy, then, is to put a highly effective system in place to test millions of people, trace their movements, and quickly quarantine those who might have been infected.
But even as the past few days have brought bad news about the science of the pandemic, they have brought terrifying news about its politics: It now seems less likely than ever that the United States will do what is necessary to reopen the economy without causing a second wave of deadly infections.
America is still behind on testing for COVID-19. Although Trump promised almost two months ago that anyone who wanted a test could get one, the U.S. has still conducted only about 5.4 million. The country needs to increase its testing rate at least threefold to reopen safely.
We aren’t anywhere close to being able to do that, though. And the president is not giving us reason to expect that the federal government is on top of this mess.
I doubt very much that most Americans will be able and willing, either psychologically or economically, to continue this lockdown for much longer. What happens when big, angry crowds of people who have lost their livelihoods, their homes, and their futures take to the streets demanding action — and the government is incapable of giving it to them?
This is the stuff of which revolutions are made. I’ve been saying in this space for some time — long before the pandemic — that the United States is in a pre-totalitarian state, according to the measures laid out by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Widespread loneliness, social atomization, loss of faith in institutions, a mania for ideology — these and other factors were present and worsening before the pandemic struck. What kept us together in spite of them was our relative wealth. Now, because of the coronavirus, we are staring into the face of mass impoverishment — and nobody, except for the superrich, is safe from it. Keep in mind too that the failure of the Russian imperial government to respond effectively to the 1891-92 famine there profoundly undermined confidence in the regime, and helped set the stage for the later revolution.
As I finish the revision of my forthcoming book about the rise of soft totalitarianism, what concerns me most is the long-term effect of virus-caused poverty and instability will prepare us to accept degrees of surveillance and control that we would not have tolerated before — this, as the cost of getting back to normal. I’m not saying that evil actors in the state will hold us hostage to that. I’m saying that it might genuinely be the only way to restore the country to something resembling normal — and that people will be so exhausted psychologically and battered economically to say no to it. China’s present could easily be our future.
Once the system is in place, it’s not going to go away. This is my fear.
We are going to have to reach very deep into the reserves of social capital this country has, if we haven’t spent it all down, and figure out how to live on what remains.