Issue Two: The Covid Clock

3.22.20 | How long are things going to be like this?


As I said would likely happen in my last email, stay-at-home orders are starting to go into effect around the country to suppress the spread of the virus. These orders will work to slow the spread somewhat, though to what extent will depend on how strictly people comply. And even under a perfect lockdown, numbers of confirmed cases will continue to rise for at least a week or two afterward as people who had been exposed to the virus previously start to develop symptoms and get treatment.

So we’re in for a long haul. How long? That’s what this issue is about.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Norman Maclean’s book on the Mann Gulch fire lately. The fire itself is a touchstone for organizational sociologists thanks to a classic paper that used the event as a model for understanding how teams get overwhelmed in crisis events, and how organizations can build resilience for emergency situations.

But I keep coming back to it now because of how much our situation resembles the one the smokejumpers faced at Mann Gulch: what seemed in one moment like an easily contained blaze is suddenly everywhere, engulfing everything. Karl Weick called the resulting sensation vu-jàdé, the inverse of déjà-vu. Suddenly you’re in a situation you cannot recognize, a place you’ve never been, from which you cannot find your way to familiar ground.

A focal point of the fire’s story became a half-melted watch, stopped around 5:56pm, marking the moment the flames swept by. Time is an important facet of our experience of disasters and how we respond to them. It’s not a coincidence that one of the first things emergency managers do when setting up a crisis response is to structure time into “operational periods,” and set objectives to complete in each one. Or that a “sense of timelessness” is used by psychologists as a measure of acute stress during or after a traumatic event.

For me one of the strangest experiences of this pandemic is how unevenly it has arrived in people’s consciousness. It’s unlike 9/11, where the rupture was so focused we still use a date as shorthand to refer to the whole event.

My fellow sociologist Malka Older (who’s also a fantastic novelist) called this phenomenon Coronalag.

I’ve been calling it The Covid Clock.

In this issue:

  1. Quick link roundup.

  2. A word on the financial response.

  3. The Covid Clock: When did it start ticking and when will it stop?

// Quick Link Roundup

  • People are helping each other: Community mutual aid is going to get a lot of people through this pandemic, and the activity is just getting started.
    — “Communities Rally Around One Another — and Google Docs — to Bring Coronavirus Aid.” April Glaser. NBC News.

  • The sounds of digital solidarity: An uplifting and heartwarming audio collage of people finding community over the internet during the early stages of the lockdown, from the New York Times podcast The Daily.

  • We lost our chance for containment in February and didn’t even know it: My must-read of the week is this piece in The Atlantic detailing how we went wrong in the early U.S. response to the pandemic. The reporters who wrote it have been doing heroic work tracking problems with diagnostic testing, and this story feels like a summation of everything they’ve learned so far:

“COVID-19 is an American catastrophe, a slow-motion disaster only now coming into view. When its true proportions have been measured, it will make the early government response look even more outrageous than it already seems. What’s happening here, in this country, was avoidable. Nearly every flaw in America’s response to the virus has one source: America did not test enough people for COVID-19.”

— “How the Coronavirus Became An American Catastrophe.” Alexis C. Madrigal and Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic.

// A Word on the Financial Response

It looks like Congress will soon pass a huge stimulus bill to mitigate the coming economic catastrophe. I’m not an economist, and I’m not a political scientist, and so I haven’t been following the details of this closely.

However, there is a strong signal in the sociological literature that disaster relief exacerbates inequality (see Howell and Elliott here and here).

It’s also my understanding that the austerity policy responses governments adopted to fight the 2008 financial crisis helped ensure that the recovery would be concentrated among the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, and I don’t see a lot of evidence so far that the response here will be any different. (Please dissuade me from this position, via email).

All that said, I believe we’re not thinking clearly enough about the profound structural changes this pandemic could force on society. Back in February I thought this essay by Matt Stoller comparing the Covid pandemic with the Great Depression, complete with the possibilities of a fundamental policy realignment, was overwrought. Now I’m not so sure.

It’s not a bad idea to revisit Piketty’s argument in Capital in the Twenty-First Century that the golden postwar decades of the mid-Twentieth century were only possible because of the massive destruction of capital and unprecedented national mobilizations of the world wars.

// The Covid Clock

It is instructive to go back and look at photos from February’s lockdown of Wuhan (samples here, here, and here). To read accounts of what it was like for the people who lived through it. Maybe at the time you read these accounts and saw these photos and thought they amounted to just another international news item. A curiosity or a distant tragedy from an authoritarian country. You weren’t on the Covid Clock yet, but it was already ticking.

It’s disconcerting to get on the Covid Clock—the new, unfolding reality of this pandemic—before people around you, or to realize later that others were on it before you. And so it’s both helpful and a little unsettling to look back at these early pictures and accounts with the knowledge that they weren’t anomalies, but previews of what has come (or is coming) to your city or town.

One of my favorite pictures from Wuhan’s early experience with the virus was taken February 8th (the photo comes from Getty Images, which hasn’t credited the photographer by name). It’s shows a person sitting at a table with a face mask pulled down over their chin. They’re surrounded a lively but frozen social scene, more than a dozen statues playing instruments, drinking, talking, carrying on.

It’s a photo of two different temporalities overlaid on each other. You can imagine in normal times this streetscape bustling with people moving around the still figures. On the Covid Clock it’s the people who are frozen, and the statues carrying on the party.

[Sitting amid a public sculpture in Wuhan, Feb. 8, 2020. Photo by Getty Images.]

/ Society on Pause

So how long are we going to be frozen like this — or, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is calling it as a matter of policy, on PAUSE? And when will we get back to normal?

This pandemic is not going to miraculously disappear. It will not be over after two or three weeks of social distancing measures. It will be burning for as long as three conditions are met: a) there are people carrying the virus; b) there are people who are not yet immune to it; and c) there are connections between these two populations through which the virus can travel.

The team of epidemiologists at Imperial College London whose report (PDF) shifted policy in the U.S. and U.K. demonstrated through modeling that the only way to keep Covid-19 from catastrophically overwhelming healthcare systems was through prolonged, intense social distancing including the closure of schools and universities. They refer to the strategy as suppression:

“Here the aim is to reduce the reproduction number (the average number of secondary cases each case generates), R, to below 1 and hence to reduce case numbers to low levels or (as for SARS or Ebola) eliminate human-to-human transmission. The main challenge of this approach is that NPIs [non-pharmaceutical interventions] (and drugs, if available) need to be maintained – at least intermittently - for as long as the virus is circulating in the human population, or until a vaccine becomes available. In the case of COVID-19, it will be at least a 12-18 months before a vaccine is available. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that initial vaccines will have high efficacy.”

Since there is no widespread human immunity to SARS-CoV-2, the pandemic will begin to surge back in subsequent waves any time suppression is relaxed, until widespread vaccination is possible, which will not happen for, most likely, 12-18 months:

“To avoid a rebound in transmission, these policies will need to be maintained until large stocks of vaccine are available to immunise the population–which could be 18 months or more. Adaptive hospital surveillance-based triggers for switching on and off population-wide social distancing and school closure offer greater robustness to uncertainty than fixed duration interventions and can be adapted for regional use (e.g. at the state level in the US). Given local epidemics are not perfectly synchronised, local policies are also more efficient and can achieve comparable levels of suppression to national policies while being in force for a slightly smaller proportion of the time.”

One problem is that the suppression strategy isn’t necessarily sustainable for as long as we’d need to sustain it. It’s unclear the extent to which people will voluntarily socially distance for months at a time. Most small businesses will not survive months-long closures without significant assistance.

It’s possible, the team concludes, that we could relax suppression every few months, until infections rise above an acceptable threshold, at which point we clamp down again:

[Source: Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team]

This approach works in the model, but the future social world it implies is completely unlike anything in the experience of modern life up until now. Is it economically or socially sustainable to lock everything down for three months, let everything go back to normal for a month or so, and then lock everything down again? We’re probably going to have to find out.

The model also seems to hold the state of the broader world constant over this 18-month time frame. It doesn’t (can’t?) account for all the usual shocks that upend social life in the course of a year: earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, industrial accidents, armed conflicts, recessions/depressions, and on and on. Any of these intruding events could meaningfully undermine suppression strategies either locally, nationally, or globally.

It’s time to start thinking about this pandemic as an event that will force lasting, meaningful transformations to social life. If you’re wondering when we’re going to just get back to normal, the answer is, as Gideon Lichfield put it: we’re not going back to normal.

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