The slow crisis is America’s weak spot

America is terrific at dealing with short-term disasters. But our attention span isn’t attuned to the crisis that takes time to develop and sticks around for a while. I worry that COVID-19, also known as Coronavirus, is the kind of slow crisis that we tend to bungle.

A hurricane. An epic blizzard. A mass shooting. A riot. These are the kinds of crises American thrives on. We declare a disaster area. We send thoughts and prayers. We flood the area with police, national guard troops, and cable network reporters. We virtue-signal. We crank out the pundits, interview the congresspeople, and cluck in sympathy. We allocate emergency funds . . . and move go on with our days.

If the crisis goes on for months or years, we lose interest. Ask the people in Puerto Rico that still don’t have electrical power. Ask the people in Miami whose houses will be underwater in a decade. We left those crises in the rear-view mirror.

That’s why I worry about what’s going to happen with this virus outbreak.

The number of cases in the US continues to rise . . . slowly. Let’s assume that some of the mitigation techniques are working. The travel restrictions from places like Italy, Iran, and China will reduce the chances of getting an infection from a traveler — but we’re already seeing people from those locations who came here, then later proved to be infected. As the infection spreads globally, it will become increasingly difficult to stop it with travel restrictions.

Some large gatherings with international attendees (like Facebook’s F8) have been cancelled. Amazon and Twitter have put travel restrictions in place for their employees.

But it’s all going to get boring soon.

The near future of this crisis will be boring

What will be going on three or four weeks from now? Here is one plausible scenario.

The virus will spread; there will be thousands of detected cases. Many will be mild. Many others will result in hospitalizations.

Some older people and those with compromised immune systems will die. But we’ll save a lot of them.

The people who bought and hoarded food and medical supplies this week will start to run out, and will have to go out and buy more.

Some states will ban large gatherings, like sporting events, conventions — and political rallies. Some pundits will accuse the governors of overreacting. Especially if it’s a Democratic governor and a Trump rally.

We’ll get bored of washing our hands, working from home, not going out to eat, not going to bars, and being afraid to shop. We’ll relent. Because “My friend ‘Arnold’ got it, and he was back at work in a week. No big deal. I’m not afraid.”

Hourly service employees will stay on the job, because they have no choice. There will be outbreaks — say, at a fast food chain restaurant in Colorado, or a hotel in Chicago, a supermarket in Dallas, or a coffee shop in Seattle. Their individual retail brands will suffer. Individuals who went to work and spread diseases will be demonized.

But commerce will continue, because this is America and people must have their convenience.

The stock market will go down. Then it will stabilize. Then it will go up a little.

Seeing that things “aren’t so bad,” Donald Trump will take credit for saving us from the virus. He will, as he has historically done, attempt to quickly put bad news in the rear view mirror, minimize it, and turn problems into victories. He will tout the progress on a vaccine that is many months away. He will keep holding rallies, and taunt any Democrats who claim there is still a problem.

Another crisis — a bombing in a European city, a mass shooting at spring training baseball, a change in leadership in China, a bank failure in Asia somewhere, a huge social media data breach, a fight over the deadlocked Democratic presidential nomination — will swallow up the news cycles.

Spring will come. We’ll stop washing our hands, being afraid to gather, or even talking about Coronavirus. It will become a punchline for late night comedians.

But viruses circulate. They don’t get impatient or give up. And if the risk gets much worse in the spring, we’ll have already moved on to other things.

I don’t think we have the patience, perseverance, or attention span to weather this challenge.

In America, it’s always the slow crisis that gets you.

Have a good spring.

9 responses to “The slow crisis is America’s weak spot

  1. “It’s always the slow crisis that gets you.” I was reading this expecting some examples of past slow crises…

    1. I guess I could have mentioned a few . . . .

      – Opioid addiction.
      – Health care costs spiraling out of control.
      – Social media turning into a pit of polarization and negativity.
      – Housing prices rising to the point where people can no longer afford to live where they work.
      – Uber/Lyft making traffic unworkable.

      In all cases things kept getting a little worse and a little worse until America becomes unlivable. Slow crises, every one.

      1. You mentioned climate change in the piece. That’s the scariest one, although it’s a global failure, not just ours.

        Ballooning national debt, which is the worst kind of slow-growing disaster because the longer we go without perceptible damage, the more complacent we will become. If there was a debt crisis now, it would be relatively easy to deal with. If it doesn’t happen until debt is 3 times GDP, we are really screwed.

        And the worst-case scenario for the corona virus could be that it goes dormant over the summer and comes back with a vengeance in the fall, as the flu and the common cold tend to do. The summer dormancy could give us a chance to develop and manufacture a virus, but that will require continued focus by policymakers and a lot of money. Or our anti-science leadership might decide that they care about deficits, won’t raise taxes, and the virus is not an emergency. Then we risk a repeat of the Spanish Influenza epidemic which wreaked havoc in its second season.

        1. Yes, Josh mentioned climate change — in a paragraph dedicated to crises we left “in the rear-view mirror.”

          I wish. Climate change might turn out to be the slowest moving, but most terrifying, crisis of them all. The whole world will have to deal with it, of course. But the U.S. is positioning itself to be the most caught-flat-footed nation of all.

  2. Aside from a short attention span, America has these additional problems:

    First, a “leader” who is a germaphobe, punishes those who deliver bad news and lies constantly. So, you have deliberate information avoidance with leadership, so as not to be seen as the wicked messenger. And Mike Pence waiting for the rapture…

    You have a health system that charges a fortune for tests. A real disincentive to get tested.

    You have weak social protections which means people can’t afford to take even a day off work, never mind two weeks of self quarantine.

    Right now, there are many cases coming out of Italy, South Korea, etc. Why? Real leaders, lots of testing, lots of results, and a social network that allows people to take the time to heal. America is just kicking the can down the road…

  3. I just monitored The Who’s press briefing this morning. For anyone interested, you can find all them here (though today’s isn’t posted yet: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/media-resources/press-briefings

    They continue to emphasize that CONTAINMENT has and is working. That mitigation is like giving up that it isn’t possible to stop the spread of this disease.

    I very much appreciate you POV and writing on this topic. Using correct terminology will make it even better.

  4. I know, right?! My thoughts and prayers go out to US citizens everywhere, and those who live in the US, too.

    Now, what were we talking about?

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