Ross Douthat: With coronavirus, reasonable panic and reasonable hopes

(Jeff Chiu | AP) A sign is shown advising people to maintain distance is shown as a man wears a mask while waiting in line at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, Saturday, March 28, 2020.

For far too long, America’s response to the coronavirus lacked what you might call rational panic. From the experts to the markets to the president and his cable-television court, an irrational calm prevailed when a general freak-out might have prepared us for the crisis.

Today, at last, we have panic in surplus — however unevenly distributed and still-insufficient in some places. But now we need something else to leaven it: Along with rational panic, we need sources of rational hope.

Rational hope is not the same as reckless optimism. It doesn’t require, for instance, quickly lifting quarantines based on outlying projections of low fatality rates, as some return-to-normalcy conservatives have been urging in the last week. Rational hope accepts that the situation is genuinely dark, but then it still looks around for signposts leading up and out. It recognizes that things are likely to get worse, but keeps itself alert to the contexts in which they seem to be getting better — or at the very least, getting worse more slowly. It doesn’t expect miracles, but it rejects a grim helplessness, a spirit of inevitable doom.

Here are three sources of rational hope, three patterns where I’m finding optimism right now.

First, there is modest hope in data compiled by smart-thermometer company Kinsa, which claims to be able to identify anomalous, unseasonal fever rates using data from its nationwide user base. Kinsa’s data show a clear February-and-March anomaly across the U.S., especially in areas known to be affected by the coronavirus. But it also shows that anomaly diminishing as lockdowns and social distancing began — to the point where fever rates are now below the expected trend nationally, and returning toward seasonal norms even in some COVID-19 hot spots.

The company is careful to note that this probably doesn’t reflect declining coronavirus infections alone, since many illnesses decline under social-distancing conditions. But the sharp turn suggests that general infection curves can be changed quickly even during a pandemic, and that the policies of the last two weeks might be having a real epidemiological effect.

Second, there is hope in the differing course of the pandemic so far in Greater New York versus the Pacific Coast. Both regions are urbanized, diverse and international, both were seeded with coronavirus cases around the same time, and Seattle had the first major (observed) outbreak. But Washington state bent its curve after the initial surge and California’s case rate and death rate trends are a gentle incline — nothing like the New York area’s terrifying spike.

In the most optimistic case, the spike reflects New York’s unique density and heavy reliance on mass transit — and one could hope that America as a whole, with our exurbs and sprawling cities and wide-aisled supermarkets and car-based commutes, is more like California than like Gotham.

This might be too optimistic; there is plenty of Bay Area and SoCal density, and coronavirus clusters have popped up in plenty of less-dense locales. So maybe some of the divide reflects policy — the fact that West Coast leaders acted ever-so-slightly more swiftly and with more seriousness of purpose than the feckless Bill de Blasio in New York City.

But even that is grounds for reasonable hope, since it suggests that even if you initially fail to spot an outbreak, you can still hope to imitate South Korea rather than northern Italy.

Finally, there is hope in the fact that the impressive containment achieved so far in East Asia has been accomplished with a variety of different policies, different degrees of lockdown and distancing, but one major commonality: the widespread use of masks. Fearing shortages and panic, Western experts have downplayed the effectiveness of masking. But the circumstantial evidence of Western versus Asian epidemic curves and the direct evidence of multiple studies suggest that masking works, and that its widespread adoption can change an epidemic’s course.

That path can’t be taken until American mask production outstrips shortages — although even homemade masks are reasonably effective — and I wouldn’t expect a masking norm to ever become universal in America. (During the Spanish Flu, a Bay Area mask ordinance was eventually repealed under the influence of the “Anti-Mask League of San Francisco.”) But you could see masks becoming ubiquitous in the densest areas, essentially required of air travelers and commuters, and normalized for supermarket and mall trips even in exurbia.

These three hopeful signs together hint at a path back toward quasi-normalcy. The current shutdown bends infection curves relatively quickly, outside a few major urban outbreaks. That policy response combines with America’s social-distancing sprawl and car culture and younger-than-Europe age profile to compensate for our initial incompetence and natural insubordination. And then the cheapest, lightest-weight means of slowing transmission becomes ubiquitous in U.S. cities by Memorial or Independence Day.

I’m sure it won’t be that easy. But this column also hasn’t exhausted the list of reasonable hopes. And in a dark moment we should all be looking for them.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.