Even if (somehow) we got Americans on board with this trace-and-isolate program, there is another factor, probably one of even greater importance: China and South Korea are still engaged in social distancing practice we seem to assume have merely vanished. They are, to our minds, already in phases three and four (phases that may not come for years—something the AEI report cleverly leaves outs). Take this from the New York Times, for example:
Worshipers at one of Seoul’s largest Catholic churches must refrain from singing hymns or saying “amen” for fear of spreading saliva. Priests sanitize their hands during communion. Holy water has been removed from the chapel.
“This should become the new normal from now on,” said Gong Mi-young, 53, who owns a tutoring school and attended Mass one night this week at Myeongdong Church in the South Korean capital. “We have to be ready for war.”
South Korea even has a name for the new practices: “everyday life quarantine.” The authorities recently released a 68-page guide, offering advice on situations like going to the movies (“refrain from shouting”) and attending funerals (“bow your head instead of hugging”). (“No More Jenga, No More ‘Amen’ as Cities Learn to Live With Coronavirus”)
The scariest part? We have no idea how long this will work; we’re buying time for a hoped-for vaccine or radically-more potent course of treatment (and if these come, if, how will we distribute them? I imagine our drug companies licking their lips. And then there are the anti-vaxxers. Oh my!). In the meantime, we may be stuck in masks and gloves, sitting six feet apart (and how effective is that in an air-conditioned restaurant?) for who knows how long. The future is, as always (though now in a heightened way) radically uncertain.
At this point, it’s unclear whether this is even a respiratory disease in the way we typically understand that term. We’re calling the use of ventilators—once our near saviors—into question! Vaccines are tricky; we have little reason to suspect one is immediately forthcoming (God willing one could be, but we can’t rely on such a thing). We, in other words, are in the desert here. We really do not know when we will be called back to “normalcy” and we would do well to accept that reality, or really that paradox. We must re-open at some point, but we must delay it in until we are as prepared as possible. When is that moment? Who knows! What we do know is that, no matter how prepared, the future remains uncertain.
Given the way many previous pandemics and plagues have worked we have every reason to suspect a second or even third wave, especially (scientists theorize, though they cannot be sure) after the warm months in the summer. Does that mean we re-enter total isolation again after August or September? Do we get a few months of terrified outings at restaurants and clothing stores before we slink back into our houses, resigned to our canned Goya chickpeas and frozen vegetable medleys? Are we condemned to this lame dance, oscillating between side-eye-filled summer outings and locked-door winters?
I certainly hope not. But the point is that we do not know; we do not know when and in what way we can ever return to anything like “normalcy.” Our desire for this return in the face of an invisible (and therefore we seem to imagine easily vanquished) pest blinds us to a reality already faced by people in other parts of the world. We find it easier to either imagine eternal data collection from an unwilling populace or a rapid reopening nearly guaranteed to seed a new outbreak than we do to inhabit a world filled with different rhythms and modes of action. We find it easier to force people back to work than to set up some sort of robust social safety net. We carry on with an election, with our typical political and social discourses, as if to not have to look the future in the eyes. The horizon is thin, so thin we seem to believe it to be uninterpretable.
I must be clear about one thing: I do not write this to scare anyone or to predict the future. I was supposed to have my wedding next month, surrounded by family and friends. Now it will be private. I was supposed to witness a friend’s ordination this past weekend; that had to be livestreamed. I’m stuck teaching on Zoom (which is, whatever others may tell you, no alternative to in-classroom teaching). My fiancée will now not have a college graduation ceremony, something she had desperately looked forward to, since, for various reasons, she didn’t have ones at the high school or community college levels. I want to go outside. I want to see my friends. I am, however, trying to be realistic about what the future holds. It’s dour; it’s uncertain. We do ourselves no favors by pretending otherwise.