We Are Just Lucky Covid-19 Wasn’t Worse
The Covid-19 catastrophe in the United States is the worst it has ever been, and with the Thanksgiving holiday looming, it’s about to get even worse. We’re on the cusp of 2,000 deaths a day for the first time since May, and it is likely that this week or next we will reach 200,000 cases in a single day for the first time ever. Remember, Dr. Fauci’s terrifying estimate back in late March that “100,000–200,000” Americans could die from Covid-19? We’re already at 259,000, and on track for 400,000 by February. This is a disaster in every possible way.
Still, I can’t shake a nagging feeling: This could have been a lot worse. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that we’ve had such a meager, even indifferent federal response, but in many ways, we’ve actually been quite lucky. Covid-19 has disrupted every aspect of human life on this planet, and it will take us years, maybe decades, to deal with its ramifications. But when you take a step back and look at the virus itself, and some of the other viruses we’ve barely evaded in the past, it’s clear we’ve caught a bunch of breaks.
How lucky are we? Here’s how Covid-19 was weaker than it could have been … and just how fortunate we are.
- It appears to be primarily transmittable through only the air. Early on in the pandemic, we were scrubbing down everything, leaving our packages outside the house for days to decontaminate, basically gargling hand sanitizer. As it turns out, it’s doesn’t seem to be that transmittable through surfaces. While the science isn’t entirely settled, it could mean we’re entirely wasting our time wiping down our tables — it’s a good practice, generally! — but it’s one less transmission vector than we thought there was. Transmission through the air is bad, to be sure. But not as bad as through the air and on surfaces.
- Masks work. Much of the early confusion about mask usage stemmed from a fear of a shortage of n95 masks; medical professionals, including Dr. Fauci, worried that a run on n95 masks from the general public would make it difficult for health care providers to find them. They went back on that advice quickly, and for good reason: It turned out that simple cloth masks, even ones you can make at home, worked extremely well at slowing down the spread of the virus. The virus could have been so powerful that the silly St. Louis Cardinals homemade mask you wear wouldn’t do you any good. But it does! It makes a huge difference.
- Children are not particularly susceptible to it. Can you imagine how differently we would talk about this virus, how we’d react to this virus, if the highest-risk group were not the oldest citizens, but the youngest? If it were, say, polio? Imagine if Covid had wreaked havoc and death through preschools and elementary schools the way it did through retirement communities and elder living institutions? The suffering has been profound. But imagining what it would have been like if it would have been our children dying is too horrific to contemplate.
- The death rate isn’t nearly as high as some other plagues. To be clear — to be absolutely freaking clear here — this is so much worse than the flu and if you find anyone who tells you it isn’t you are heretofore deputized to vote that person out of your life immediately. That set? Caveat understood? So, I can now point out that the low death rate of Covid pales in comparison to say, Ebola, which the WHO estimated in February to be 50 percent. SARS, which is far more transmittable than Ebola, had a 10 percent death rate. Again: Imagine how we’d be handling this pandemic differently if it had a 10 percent death rate.
- It’s apparently an easy virus to develop a vaccine against. Early on in the pandemic, we were warned: Vaccines can take years, even decades. But with three different vaccines (and more surely to come) focusing on the same protein in Covid-19 and reporting shockingly high rates of prevention, we might have a definitive vaccine ready to deploy within a year of Covid-19 beginning its spread in America. Already, we’ve started to point to a post-Covid-19 life that could proceed as early as this spring. That’s dramatically earlier than anyone could have thought when all this started.
Obviously, this is not meant to minimize the virus, its spread or the sickness and death that it has wrought. But it’s important to recognize that it could have been so much worse, not just to be grateful, but also to remind us to be diligent. Because more viruses will come, someday, and perhaps someday soon. They may be — they probably will be — more dangerous than Covid-19. Hopefully we’ll be more ready than we were this time. We better be.
Will Leitch will be writing multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.