the national interest

Social Distancing Is Not Enough to Stop the Coronavirus

A sign of the times in Los Angeles. It’s not enough. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

In 1997, I worked as a coat-checker at one of the Clinton inaugural balls. My idea was to hopefully get some color for a story I could write as a young reporter, but pretty quickly I found myself drawn into the drama of the coat-checking itself. We had far too few coat-checkers to do the job, and worse, the tags we had to label the coats were numbered haphazardly. We could barely keep up with the initial crush of coats being handed to us by the ballgoers, and checkers were throwing them in piles in the floor of a massive room, maybe two-thirds the size of a football field.

It was very obvious to me that the system was going to collapse when everybody came to collect their garments at the end of the night. We barely had enough staff to take every coat and throw it somewhere in the room, let alone sort it so that we could keep track of where they had gone. Retrieving the coats would take ten or 20 times as long as it had taken to store them. But nobody seemed willing or able to focus on the problem at the time. The staff and management were simply concentrating on the task in front of them — managing the line of people checking in coats, as quickly as possible. They kept brushing off concerns about what the end of the night would bring.

What followed was a full-scale coat riot. The crush of customers eventually tried to rush the coatroom, police were brought in, the mess took hours to sort out, and by morning dozens of coats were still there.

Obviously this episode was a comedy, not a tragedy. It reminds me in form, though of course not in scale, of the coronavirus epidemic. It seems clear to public-health officials and people following the news closely that the American health system, perhaps even American society itself, is headed for the kind of nightmare that has already been on display in Italy and elsewhere. These same people have been trying to seize the attention of the national authorities and the rest of their country, to get them to understand that a system that appears fine at the moment is in fact headed toward collapse. And they are failing.

The national response that has taken shape over the last couple of days has been a patchwork of state, local, and private action. Some governors and mayors are shutting down schools or other public spaces. Others are not. The primary tool being used to contain the virus is advice to maintain “social distancing.” We should avoid large gatherings, maintain physical space from other people, wash our hands thoroughly and frequently.

For the most part, it is not working. A new NBC poll finds only 47 percent of Americans plan to avoid large gatherings, and just 36 percent say they will reschedule travel. The latter number may be misleading, as not everybody has travel plans to begin with. But social media has confirmed a broad picture of a public that has greeted the coming crisis with something close to indifference. Bars remain packed.

The task has been made far more difficult by a backlash from Republican officials, many of whom have either overtly or covertly undermined pleas from public officials. President Trump’s Friday news conference was an ill-advised display of handshaking and overconfidence. Republicans like Devin Nunes are urging people to hit the bars, feeding the misimpression they have spent weeks stoking that the virus is an overhyped plot to undermine the president. “In your more politically conservative regions, closing is not interpreted as caring for you. It’s interpreted as liberalism, or buying into the hype,” one pastor tells the Washington Post.

But even if the Republican Party were fully onboard with the social distancing message, authorities would almost certainly have placed far more weight on these behavioral shifts than they can possibly bear in such a short period of time. Changing social norms takes a long time — far longer than even the most competent authorities could carry off.

Here’s another example this episode has brought to mind: the seat belt. It is hard to think of a behavior change with a more favorable ratio of cost to benefit than choosing to wear one’s seat belt. The inconvenience of buckling up is extremely minor, and the benefit — reducing one’s probability of dying in a car crash by around half — is large.

And yet, think of how long it took for this behavior to fully set in. Starting in 1968, every new automobile was required to have seat belts installed. I was born in 1972, and when I was growing up, only some parents made their kids wear a seat belt. My parents insisted on it, a habit some of my friends considered draconian when they rode in our family’s car. My grandmother died in a car crash she would have survived had she worn her seat belt. That was in 1994. It has taken decades, and the institution of traffic tickets as a punitive measure, to turn seat-belt usage into a standard practice. Even now, usage hovers just under 90 percent.

It’s difficult to make a direct comparison between social distancing and seat-belt usage. One discouraging difference is that social distancing is a practice that is needed to protect others, whereas the safety benefits of a seat belt are enjoyed entirely yourself. But to the extent the seat-belt story tells us anything, it is that people tend to be indifferent to dangers that aren’t immediate. Almost anybody would react with fear to a loose tiger or a mugger with a pistol, but an invisible or far-off danger — a hypothetical future car accident, or a virus — is easy to disregard.

More crucially, changing norms takes time — and there is no time left. The virus is spreading rapidly through the population, most likely by people who are not yet symptomatic. Hospitals that are now operating with perfect order will soon be overwhelmed with panic and death. Almost nothing I have seen gives me confidence that the measures in place will suffice. The social distancing signals are not strong or fast enough, and there is probably no way they can be. The choices left seem to be shutting down every public space not needed for food or medicine, or drifting helplessly into a very foreseeable disaster.

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Social Distancing Is Not Enough to Stop the Coronavirus