S1: Hey there. It’s Mary. This week, everyone here at Slate got some pretty tough news. The company needs to cut our pay in order to pay the bills. This is something that’s happening at a lot of journalistic outlets right now as advertisers figure out this new economy. But the thing is, we also know more people are listening to this show than ever before. So I thought I’d let you know that if you appreciate what we’re doing here every day and if you’re able, you can support us, you can make sure the show and others like it are around to help you figure out big moments like the one we’re in right now. It’s really simple to show your support. Just become a slate plus member. It gives you access to all the news analysis you need right now. The people you hear on the show every day. Jim Newell. Jordan Weisman. Mark Joseph Stern. Dahlia Lithwick. It’ll also let you access this podcast ad free. Just going over to slate.com. Slash what next plus and create an account. That way our bosses will know that.
S2: What next set you? All right. Here’s the show.
S1: I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about summer recently. Last year I took a couple weeks off at the end of August, went to the beach. It felt like an indulgence. But this year I’ve been trying to figure out if there’s gonna be any way to take a vacation from the Corona virus. It turns out a young over the Atlantic. He’s been wondering the same thing. Your article is called Our Pandemic Summer. And Before This Pandemic. I’m just wondering what what you thought your summer was gonna be like.
S3: I actually I actually didn’t know.
S4: Look, the the reason why we chose that title was that I think a summer has kind of a charmed quality in America. It’s British, but he lives in D.C. now. You know, summer is the sort of magical time of leisure and relaxation. You know, you go to sporting events. You have barbecues. You know, you you you enjoy the great outdoors.
S1: I am I have a couple kids, so I’m sort of like, okay, I just need to make it through the home schooling and then I’m like, okay, well, maybe like our camp’s going to be open like that. You know, that’s that’s sort of what’s happening in my mind. It feels like this next stage.
S3: Absolutely. You know, the questions that are on everyone’s minds right now are things like when is this going to end? When will things go back to normal? When can I start having fun again? Like that sort of stuff, you know, and I don’t mean to to dash. Everyone’s hopes about that.
S5: But I think it’s worth thinking right now about what the reality of that future is going to be like.
S6: Yeah, I mean, you talked to how many experts to try to figure out what summer or normal would look like.
S3: Several dozen. I’m not sure I have the exact figure, but yes, several dozen people.
S1: And after those conversations, did you leave them feeling like summer was going to exist in any kind of regular way?
S7: I think my my best guess is that. It will exist in a very different scale than we are normally used to.
S5: We shouldn’t expect things to go back to normal.
S8: We can’t just snap back to business as usual because that is a recipe for further waves of this pandemic and the further necessity of severe restrictions and knockdowns.
S9: Today on the show, after a month of isolation, more and more people are talking about opening the country back up again or getting back to normal. The question for Ed is what normal is going to look like. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.
S1: So this question of when can we just get back to normal, which is like this refrain. I feel like I keep hearing from everyone. Is it fair to say. Getting back to normal, that would require a vaccine. Right.
S3: So I think it will require the vast majority of people to be immune to the virus in some way. Now, the safest and best way of doing that is through a vaccine. The other possibility is that enough people become infected to develop what is called herd immunity, where the virus can’t easily spread from one susceptible host to another. It could happen if enough people are infected. But as several countries have already realized during this first wave of the pandemic, you can’t really just rely on that happening naturally in the way it might have. This was, say, a new strain of a seasonal flu. The virus just spreads too fast and is too dangerous. So if you shoot for the herd immunity option, as the UK and several other countries initially seem to be doing, you’re just going to end up with a lot of dead people.
S1: And there’s no guarantee that once you’ve had this coronavirus, you’re completely immune forever, right?
S3: That’s correct. It is not clear how long the immunity lasts, the extent to which one infection will protect you from future ones. It’s likely that any immunity generated against this new virus would last for maybe a year, maybe a couple of years. So it’s not it’s not as if you will encounter it or you will get a vaccine, then you will be protected for the rest of your life. Could a year. That’s nothing. I mean, it’s it’s hard to say, right. So for the milder coronaviruses, immunity lasts for less than a year for things like sores and Murs. It may last for several years, but it starts dropping sharply early on in that timeframe. So, again, it’s it’s difficult to say and we’ve only known about this virus for a few months now. So no one really knows what the duration of immunity will be. But it certainly is in something like, say, chicken pox where you get it and you are then immune for the rest of your life. That will almost certainly not be like that.
S10: So given all that, I feel like when we talk about this getting back to normal, it’s not even getting back to normal. It’s some kind of like new normal, some kind of moderated normal. Yeah. And we’re seeing a couple of governors in particular start to talk about what that could look like, like earlier this week.
S11: Governor Gavin Newsom gave a press conference and he kind of imagined for the people in his state why it normal could look like you may be having dinner with a waiter wearing gloves, maybe a face mask, dinner where the menu is disposable, where the tables half of the tables in that restaurant no longer appear, where your temperature is checked before you walk in to the establishment. These are likely scenarios.
S3: And I think I think that’s right. Not necessarily the specific details, but I think the idea that life will be dramatically different is correct and that Newsom is right in trying to prepare people for it. You could argue that a failure of imagination has led us to the point where currently at where even people who been thinking about this for a long time did not foresee some of the stumbling points in America’s past, like its inability to get a good diagnostic test up and running throughout the country in time. The fact that people, including the current administration, saw the virus happening in China and didn’t take measures to steal the country.
S12: I think there was the sense that it’s happening in this very far off foreign alien place.
S3: And I think that our inability to really forecast what the future might look like, especially when that future looks very different to what we’re experiencing, left society in a place when it was unprepared, when it was ready to be uprooted and taken by surprise. And I think it’s going to take feats of imagination to understand what the future might be like to steel ourselves, not just in terms of material resources and logistical plans, but just psychologically for the idea that, you know, the summer, the rest of the year, maybe even longer, is going to be different.
S10: So you hear someone like Gavin Newsom, many think he’s doing the work of like trying to imagine this for people just so they can get ready.
S3: Yes, absolutely. I think that that act of preparing the citizenry for big changes to come is really crucial. And we need that from our political leaders right now. It is refreshing to see people like Newsome’s stepping up to that challenge.
S10: You made this point that gradual reopening, like not sort of flipping a switch and everything’s zooming back to the way it was before. But something more moderated. It’s important because it helps scientists understand what works in terms of preventing the spread of this disease. Because we shut everything down so quickly that we don’t know.
S13: We were forced into a situation when swift, decisive action had to be taken because the virus was already everywhere and spreading very quickly. And so a lot of social distancing measures like closing small closing businesses, closing schools, banning mass coverings, stay at home orders. Eventually, all of these things were rolled out in very short order. And it is difficult to know which of those things made the most difference and which should therefore be used again during future waves of this pandemic. We didn’t have the chance to work that out because everything was happening so quickly. But now that hopefully we’re going to get into a more stable situation, we can find out by slowly easing off on these restrictions and seeing what happens to the virus. Obviously, to do that, we need either widespread testing, which we don’t have and probably not in a position to have anytime soon or an immense public health effort where we can identify cases and trace their contacts.
S1: Massachusetts is one of the states that’s thinking pretty concretely about how they’re going to do that. Can you explain why the testing and tracing is so important and what Massachusetts is doing?
S3: Yeah. So the standard protocol for trying to contain a new outbreak is to find people who are infected to then isolate them so they can infect someone else, to then interview them, to find all their contacts, all the people they’ve encountered since they became infected. To find all those contacts and to then either test or isolate them. And this is all part of the standard public health playbook.
S13: And it is labor intensive, it is hard, and it is especially hard for a virus like this because it can spread from one person to another without causing symptoms or before causing symptoms. And that means that by the time you identify someone who actually has covered 19, they’ve probably encountered a lot of contacts and had the chance to infect a lot of other people. So the scale of the challenge is already very difficult. And it’s compounded by the fact that the United States’s public health infrastructure has been weakened through decades of disinvestment that transcend administrations, but have certainly continued in this one, where tens of thousands of people working at local public health agencies, their jobs have been lost.
S14: I mean, in your article, you have this stunning number, which is that between 2008 and 2017, local health departments have lost 55000 workers. Yep. And now, as you’re saying, they’re gonna be asked to do this very labor intensive work.
S12: Yeah. And I think, you know, this is this is part of the problem. There was a fund that was meant to prepare the country and its public health infrastructure specifically for this. But it’s been slowly sapped over time, which means that jobs were lost, which means that now that there is a crisis, the people necessary to do that legwork aren’t there, and you can’t just get them back very quickly. Now, you can get some of that capacity back. And that is what Massachusetts is trying to do. So it’s trying to train a a core of volunteer contact traces. So that’s the people who would call up people who are infected to find all the other people who they’ve had contact with.
S15: And to then notify and find and interview them. You can’t just turn someone into a fully fledged epidemiologist overnight, but you can certainly train them to do parts of the necessary public health work that now needs to be done. And, you know, I think that’s a good idea. It’s a necessary step for sure. And it might also help with some of the the economic burden of this pandemic. You might give people something to do, you know, at times when they’ve been furloughed or when they’ve lost their jobs.
S14: I was struck reading your story about how in this new normal period where we’re sort of living a different kind of regular life, there are all of these places that don’t make sense anymore. Restaurants and school buildings and daycare centers and all of these people in need of work. And it seems like we need to kind of flip things around in a pretty dramatic way. And it stood out to me because, you know, we’re talking about what the new normal could look like. And we’re talking about a couple of states. We’re talking about California. We’re talking about Massachusetts. But I wonder if the states on their own can do the work to kind of turn normal inside out in the way we need to.
S12: Yeah, I think that’s a really good question. And I have wondered that, too. It is striking. I think that there are very clear roadmaps for how to reopen the country safely and what to do afterwards and the wait for a vaccine. Those plans have come from former Trump administration officials. They’ve come from former Obama era officials. They’ve come from people like Elizabeth Warren and other political leaders. The White House either has no strategy or has not disclosed it yet. And that is deeply concerning. Many of the experts I spoke to were very critical of the lack of central coordinated leadership from the federal government at this time. And that is a problem. It has left states in a lurch. Many of them have risen to the challenge, as we’ve already talked about, by instigating their own plans, their own measures. Somewhat ironically, several groups of states have form their own little mini unions and and sort of fought tried to form coordinated plans for what to do in the near and medium term future, were meant to be in the United States of America. And those states are being left to unite on their own. And I think that’s a very strange situation to be in and one that is going to, at the very least, lead to significant disparity across the country in terms of how different states are coping with this ongoing problem.
S10: I mean, typically, the CDC would step in here, right? So where are they?
S12: Absolutely. The CDC has long been viewed as one of the greatest, if not the greatest public health agencies in the world. It’s the model on which, you know, the African CDC or the Chinese CDC and similar agencies around other parts of the world are based off. And yet it’s very strange that the CDC has been silent. Now, the details of how and why that silencing has happened. I think still need to be reported. But it’s very clear that they don’t have a voice. They aren’t part of the press briefings. That is a huge problem because not only do we not have enough public health people to do the kind of on the ground contact tracing work we’ve talked about, but we also don’t have enough to really provide advice to all the local leaders who are now going to be sorely in need of it as they are left to make their own decisions about their own populace.
S1: You got this one quote from a public health expert who said, I feel like we need a public health government in exile right now.
S10: And it stood out to me because public health people are pretty conservative politically. They don’t put themselves out there. They don’t say things like this. But I feel like we’re at this funny moment where, you know, you flagged it. We have states who are sort of forming their own coalitions. And now we have public health people saying we need to form our own coalition that acts outside of the federal government, but fills that need.
S12: It’s a it’s a hell of a thing to say. It’s certainly not unwarranted. But I think it speaks to the extraordinary situation that we’re currently in, where that lack of federal coordination has people wondering what what do we do? And that’s one of the questions I was I asked people like, do you think that states can do this on their own? And I think the general view was they can succeed up to a point. But we do need some kind of national coordination that is sorely missing right now. At the moment, we have a ludicrous situation where states are having to bid against each other for much needed supplies. And where that where some of them are having to bid against. Federal government for those supplies.
S15: Public health people hate military metaphors in general. But let’s let’s use one in this case. If America is pretending that it’s at war with this virus, it is currently forcing all 50 states to fight their own separate wars, which is a bit ludicrous, really. Like there really does need to be some kind of national coordination. And it just seems to be not only absent, but not imminently forthcoming.
S3: This is not going to be over anytime soon. This is going to be what I’ve described as variously a protracted Whack-A-Mole scenario, now a long siege. Whatever metaphor you want to use, it’s not a one off disaster. It’s not like a hurricane where it will sweep through town and then disappear.
S12: You know, it’s not like a terror attack where catastrophe happens and then we can start rebuilding. We are still in the middle of this. And I think that’s the the big risk to me now is that we are psychologically ill suited to understanding that. I’ve written before that the US and other countries go through these cycles of panic and neglect when it comes to diseases. Things happen. People freak out. They get things under control. Make investments to ready themselves for the next time.
S13: Complacency then sets in during the peacetime laws and that preparedness wanes.
S3: I think the real risk now is that we are going to go into that neglect phase before the panic is actually over.
S5: And that that cycle where we leave ourselves vulnerable again is going to happen that at an accelerated pace because we are thinking about this in two short term ister way.
S16: Ed Yong, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you so much for having me. Stay safe. Ed Yong is a science writer for The Atlantic.
S17: And that’s the show.
S18: We are still collecting your stories about what it is like to live through this unprecedented moment. Give us a call. We are actually following up on some voicemails we got doing some reporting. We’d love to hear from you, too.
S19: 2 0 2 8 8 8 2 5 8 8. That’s 2 0 2 8 8 8 2 5 8 8.
S18: What next is piece by Daniel Hewitt, Mara Silvers, Jason De Leon and Mary Wilson. I’m Mary Harris. Hope you’re staying healthy and safe. I will meet you back here on Monday.