On March 31, President Trump in a COVID-19 briefing stated that it’s going to be a “very, very painful two weeks” before we see “some real light at the end of the tunnel.” The U.S. has now become the epicenter of the worst pandemic in a hundred years. His comments were centered on simulations and analysis that indicated between 100,000 to 240,000 people in the U.S. may die as a result of COVID-19 by the end of the year. COVID-19 has established a foothold in the U.S. population, and it has the potential to become far more explosive.
The human and economic toll occurring in the U.S. is almost incalculable. Most concerning is the already strained healthcare system, which now has to stand up against what is anticipated to be a growing tidal wave of more cases and patient fatalities in certain parts of the country. Faced with near depletion of personal protective equipment, orders of magnitudes fewer ventilators than needed, and a healthcare system that has already been running at a marathon pace and now is asked to run wind-sprints, this tidal wave is going to sweep over our healthcare clinicians, nurses, and administrative staffs in profound ways. In the coming weeks, the U.S. is likely to see thousands of people dying daily on top of the typical morality. Sadly, the light at the end of the tunnel that President Trump mentioned is still very far away for many.
Briefings by the administration’s task force indicate that it hopes the fatality curve will flatten, and it’s likely to in time – however, not widely discussed is research indicating COVID-19 is likely to be a persistent issue through the summer. Even though research has shown that temperature increases lower case rates of other coronaviruses, it is still uncertain how COVID-19 will react. So far, the U.S. has tried to manage the COVID-19 pandemic on many fronts with the most obvious being stay-at-home orders and social distancing. A growing problem from an economic perspective is that the U.S. needs to get back to work to stave off a major economic recession predicted to be worse than the 2008 global financial crisis, which could even lead to a depression not unlike the decade-long depression brought on by the 1929 stock market crash. A modern society like the U.S. simply cannot be shut down for months at a time as we rage a medical war against COVID-19. Those within the medical community advise that the population should be isolated until this pandemic runs its course, but they aren’t economists, and this isn’t a feasible long-term approach as illustrated by the historical unemployment rates we are experiencing and the threat of a devastating global recession or depression. The U.S. and world are suffering an economic crisis and many industries are being impacted directly and others through the ripple effects.
Guidance to allow the U.S. population to go back to work may come from President Trump in May or June depending on the states’ governors and severity of COVID-19. But going back to work will have its challenges and costs. The harsh reality is that mass transit buses, subways, rideshares, taxis, pedestrian traffic, elevators, office space, workplace collaboration, and customer interface don’t always lend themselves easily to social distancing. Furthermore, even if personal protective equipment like masks were made available and workers were educated on their use, many would not wear them, not wear them correctly, or would inadvertently contaminate them. What would give the U.S. a greater handle on what is occurring is an accurate and fast blood antibody test to determine if someone has already been infected and recovered from COVID-19. That would not only allow the U.S. to send back those workers, hopefully now immune to the disease, but also identify the uninfected so they can take extra precaution.
In the context of the U.S. population going back to work, recent research has shown that approximately 40-45 percent of people infected with COVID-19 may be asymptomatic.  This is highly problematic as those who return to work and become newly infected during the summer months, but asymptomatic, will begin to spend more time indoors as cooler temperatures begin in September. Most viruses thrive indoors due to cooler and dryer air, and the reduced social distancing of a home environment will drive person-to-person transmission. Assuming that the U.S population must return to work to prevent a disastrous economic recession or depression, assuming persistent transmission of COVID-19 during the summer will occur, and assuming a lack of significant respite of an overly strained healthcare system in certain parts of the country, we are likely to experience a second pronounced wave of mortality in the fall. Many have likened the fight against COVID-19 as being at war with a determined adversary. To put it bluntly, all wars have casualties and fatalities but it’s a strong working economy that has allowed the U.S. to emerge from the turmoil of war.
In addition to the blood antibody test, and until a vaccine is developed and administered to the U.S. population, what is needed are antivirals to prevent infection, and treatments to lessen the impact on those infected. A viable vaccine with tested efficacy that can be administered is unlikely to occur for the next 12-18 months unless a breakthrough occurs. Bottom line is that this scourge is probably going to return in a pronounced second wave this fall and then continue to wreak havoc well into 2021. But a U.S. workforce can’t sit idle at home for another two months struggling to get by on mortgage deferments, unemployment benefits, or stimulus checks because continued economic stagnation will result in more shuttered businesses, increasing unemployment rates, bankrupted industries, delayed capital investments, greater logistical lags, lost jobs/careers, lost retirement savings, increased mental health issues and suicides, increased domestic violence, greater alcoholism and illegal drug use, greater foreclosures and homelessness, primary/secondary school closures and corresponding home-school and child-care burdens (see graphic), postponed life events (e.g. graduations, birthday parties, family trips, weddings, job changes, retirements, etc.), closed vocational schools and universities, and a depressed economy across most all infrastructure sectors that will last years and potentially hurt our national security.
The calculus of lives lost in the U.S. versus the economic devastation of putting the U.S. workforce back to work is exceptionally difficult. The premature loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in the U.S. is unfathomable and would be a national tragedy; however, a 2008-like global recession would be devasting and a 21st century repeat of the 20th century Great Depression could cause a lasting U.S. economic catastrophe that might be generational. It is unknown how quickly the U.S. would recover from prolonged economic stagnation, but it is noteworthy to say that the ripple effects of the Great Depression are still being felt today. The counter-argument is that as a global society we should not turn our backs on humanity in their darkest hour and trade away their lives for economic prosperity. Either way, at the end of the day, our elected leaders will be forced to make difficult decisions in which there are no win-win solutions.
Already, the COVID-19 pandemic is shaping the U.S. and shifting its culture in many unique and different ways as did the 1918 influenza pandemic. The following is just a sampling of COVID-19 ripples that may be occurring, if not already occurring, which may be felt years and generations from now.
- People will follow greater hygiene while human greetings and interactions will change due to evolving views of personal space
- Home preparedness, self-sufficiency, and home-based hobbies will see a revival
- Renewed interest in walking, hiking, camping, and utilization of outdoor spaces
- Expectations of other nations to rein in conditions conducive to emergences of novel viruses, such as wet markets and deforestation
- Expectations of elected political leaders to work in a more bipartisan manner for the greater good
- Greater sense of community and connectedness to each other
- Online education of all ages, to include virtual reality for laboratories or to enhance immersion learning, will become even more available and further challenge traditional in-residence learning experiences
- Teleworking access and usage will continue to expand pushing communication innovations
- Media streaming services and internet access to all will increase
- Home delivery services will increase and be further personalized as brick-and-mortar establishments decrease due to changing business models and overheads
- Pharmaceutical production and other industries once offshored to China, but key to U.S. resilience, will see a resurgence in the U.S.
- Greater understanding of the interconnectedness and supply chain of our modern society and appreciation of those who make it run
Like what happened 100 years ago, the U.S. will emerge from this pandemic, but what we are living through and experiencing today will forever be seared into us and our nation’s history. To end on a more positive note, we should anticipate a significant uptick in births from countless bored couples self-isolating or those postponing children until this crisis has passed. Hopefully those born during or after this pandemic era will study what occurred, so they are not destined to repeat the past. For now, we will try to persevere and overcome.
Disclaimer: The author is responsible for the content of this article. The views expressed do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Intelligence Community, or the U.S. Government.