Loren Yager: A few hints of light at the end of the tunnel

Jennifer Haller works from home, Monday, March 16, 2020, in Seattle. Earlier in the day, Haller was the first person to receive a shot of a potential vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, at the start of the first-stage safety study clinical trial of the vaccine at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

With the coronavirus causing businesses to shut their doors across the valley — and the earthquake on Wednesday — it seems that Salt Lake City is at the epicenter of the crisis. The relentless television news adds to the foreboding and helplessness as the number of people infected in the United States increases sharply every day.

There is no question that this is a world-changing event and that all the social distancing and other preparatory measures need to be taken as quickly and seriously as possible. But at the same time, we also need to see that there are some faint reasons for hope as we try to come to grips with the need to hunker down for months in our homes.

One is that the incredibly rapid increase in the number of people infected reflects actual increases as well as catching up on testing on people that have been previously infected due to the disastrous rollout of the test kits. So the numbers are getting closer to the actual number of infections, but the growth rate is going to be inflated for some time as more tests are rolled out and test results catch up with the true infected population.

This exponential growth in the U.S. infections may make it appear that the social distancing measures are not having any impact, which is the absolute worst message to have in this environment. We only need to look at China, Korea and other nations to see that drastic distancing measures do work to slow and maybe even halt the growth of infections.

There is no question that the heavy-handed measures China employed are not an option in the U.S., but Korea and other democracies have also demonstrated success with their approaches. So although we are stuck watching the numbers soar, these other examples show that these measures will work if practiced seriously and consistently.

A second positive is that many parts of the economy can continue to operate in this environment — some even better that before. Interstate truckers have the roads all to themselves and will be setting one Cannonball Run record after another in delivering goods across the country. And given the self-contained features of the long-haul driver environment, it seems likely that they will be able to continue their vital role during this crisis. Shorter haul trucking and even home deliveries are also eased by the lack of any congestion in cities and towns.

Some other industries are also capable of operating during this crisis. Many service industries are capable of shifting their operations to a virtual environment, including education, finance and technology, although those transitions are likely to be difficult for some time and of no help to many workers. We are also fortunate that many entertainment options are also available that did not exist even ten years ago, and those allow us to distract ourselves, even if momentarily, from the anxiety-inducing torrent of bad news.

Finally, we are discovering many heroes in our midst, such as state and local officials, police officers, grocery workers, delivery people, and many others, most of whom we overlooked until the crisis. But perhaps most important on the list of heroes are the medical professionals who are both assisting patients as well as furiously working to find ways to alleviate this crisis.

While we are unlikely to see a COVID-19 vaccine in anywhere near the time-frame we would hope, it is much more likely that the medical profession will find smaller ways to prevent infections and shorten treatments that save lives and decrease the demand for hospital beds. Even if those treatments are only marginally effective, the impact of numerous incremental improvements over such a large population means would provide a little more time and decrease the likelihood of the worst-case scenario.

None of these tiny bright lights of hope at the end of the tunnel will change the devastating effects of the virus on families and businesses, and the world that emerges from the crisis will be profoundly different in ways that we cannot predict. But as in any marathon or other long-term and difficult endeavor, we all need some small measures of hope and progress so that we can stay on course rather than throw up our hands and quit. If we are able to do that as a community and as a country, we will see some brighter lights and even imagine what it will be like to finally emerge from the long and dark COVID-19 tunnel.

Loren Yager

Loren Yager, Park City, formerly served as the chief economist of the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.