(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The U.S. has reached a landmark of sorts in its so far not very successful battle with the virus that causes Covid-19. Most Americans now know someone who has been infected.
This is according to tracking surveys conducted by Navigator Research, a polling project with ties to various left-leaning groups. Given what we know about the spread of the disease from other sources, it sounds about right. Although it is sad news, it may also mark something of a positive turning point. More than anything else, the key to keeping Covid-19 under control seems to be taking it seriously, and knowing someone with the disease can do a lot to focus a person on the risks it poses.
That it had to come to this is of course tragic. A key enabler of the spread of the coronavirus, especially in affluent countries with the resources to stop it, has been an inability to imagine that what happened somewhere else might happen closer to home. Italians saw what transpired in China, and failed to act on the early signs that they might be next. New Yorkers saw what was going on Italy and the mayor and governor concluded that, well, this isn’t Italy. Political leaders in the U.K. saw what was going on in Continental Europe and New York and seemed to think their compatriots could just tough it out, before belatedly changing course.
Within countries, though, an outbreak in one region usually did translate into rapid changes in behavior everywhere else. This was true at first even in the sprawling, polarized U.S., where the actions of some on-the-ball state and local officials, President Donald Trump’s sudden (and, it turns out, temporary) conversion from coronavirus doubter to grudging supporter of tough measures to stop it and a sort of generalized public freak-out together kept the epidemic from going national in the spring.
This success didn’t last. One reason was of course the impatience of the president, who after his own coronavirus task force issued a reasonable set of recommendations for safely reopening the country, promptly goaded states to ignore them. Given that much of the U.S. had barely been touched by the disease, though, it was always going to be a struggle to persuade people outside of hard-hit areas to take it seriously and stick with practices like social distancing or mask-wearing for long. This is proving to be the case elsewhere as well — the northeastern Spanish region of Aragon, which saw only modest spread of Covid-19 in March and April, is now the epicenter of a summer resurgence. But it’s especially true in the U.S., which has been beset for a while now by an epidemic of distrust and disinformation that seemingly makes it really hard for people in, say, suburban Tulsa to imagine themselves in the shoes of New Yorkers (and vice versa!).
In April, I got into extended email discussions with a couple of readers from outside New York who said they didn’t know anyone with Covid-19 and were clearly dubious of my assertions that I did. Allegations that the disease was a sinister hoax or nearly harmless coursed through social media. Even in the mainstream media and academic research, the deadliness of New York’s epidemic was often ascribed to conditions unique to the big city (such as density and heavy reliance on public transportation) or to the nursing-home policies of Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Some things about New York’s Covid experience clearly were unique, and the outbreaks cropping up all over the Sun Belt this summer have generally been slower moving and (so far) less deadly. But they’ve also been much more widespread — to the point that most Americans now know someone who has or has had Covid-19. Almost all Americans, meanwhile, now live in communities where substantial numbers of people have been infected with the coronavirus, meaning they’re increasingly likely to hear about the disease from local news sources that they trust more than national outlets.
State and local politicians are of course affected by these changing realities, too, making previously reluctant ones more likely to endorse measures to slow the disease’s spread. But the changes in individual attitudes seem to be at least as important as the government mandates. Here’s a chart of restaurant traffic in Arizona since the state began allowing indoor dining again on May 11.
The number of new confirmed coronavirus cases started to rise sharply in Arizona in late May. By late June, the state’s outbreak appeared to be spiraling out of control, with more than 3,000 new cases a day and the percentage of tests coming back positive blowing past 20%. On June 29, Governor Doug Ducey closed bars, gyms and theaters and strongly urged (but did not mandate) the wearing of face masks, and on July 9, he restricted indoor dining at restaurants to 50% of capacity. But as the chart makes clear, behavior had begun changing well before then, as Arizonans saw reports of rising case loads on the local news and learned of friends who had contracted the disease. In the process, they began to slow the epidemic: The number of new cases reported peaked on July 1, meaning that new infections likely peaked a week or more before that. There are still too many infections and too high a positive-test percentage to say things are under control, but they are headed in the right direction, for now at least.
The big Covid-19 outbreaks in Florida and Texas appear to have peaked, too, but those states have not yet seen as big a decline in cases as Arizona. That may be in part because their populations are dispersed over many metropolitan areas and media markets, meaning that the local cycle of learning to take Covid seriously has to happen over and over again. Two-thirds of Arizona’s population resides in and around Phoenix, making the process a lot simpler.
I realize this isn’t the only possible explanation for current trends in coronavirus data. Hundreds of thousands of Arizonans (possibly more than a million) have now recovered from and are for the time being most likely immune to Covid-19, and this is surely helping to slow the disease’s spread. But the fact that local outbreaks around the world have subsided at very different infection rates (as measured by subsequent antibody surveys) points to behavior changes and public policy being in most cases the more important drivers.
Covid-19 is usually not fatal, and may be getting less so over time. It’s not unstoppable either. But when people think that it doesn’t exist, or isn’t coming anywhere near them, or is practically harmless, or is going away soon, it has a nasty way of becoming a big, big problem. We’ve now reached a point where most Americans have a personal link to the disease, which makes such denial a lot harder. That may turn out to be some good bad news.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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