The Limits of Optimism

Women wearing protective face masks at the deserted Piccadilly Circus in London, England, March 18, 2020. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)
In times of crisis, only hope will do.

In the White House, as in No. 10 Downing Street, lives an optimist, tempered by his more skeptical advisers.

On Tuesday, a month after saying that the coronavirus was just like the flu and “very much under control,” two weeks after promising “it will go away,” and one week to the day after West Virginia became the 50th state to report a case, President Trump said that he wanted the country back open for business by Easter, “a beautiful time.” At best, this looks like wishful thinking. At worst, denial. The U.S. now has more confirmed coronavirus cases than anywhere in the world. New York City alone has over 25,000 cases.

Across the pond, on Friday, three weeks after telling a press conference that he had been in a hospital with coronavirus patients where he “shook hands with everybody,” and one week since the government pivoted from a strategy of mitigation to one of suppression, happy-go-lucky Boris Johnson announced that he, too, has contracted the coronavirus (as has the health secretary and, very likely, the chief medical officer) and will be self-isolating. If the prime minister can’t be given sufficient protection, what chance do ordinary health-care workers have?

Johnson stepped up measures after researchers at Imperial College London said that Britain’s National Health Service would be completely overwhelmed, and that as many as 250,000 people could die, if the government kept up its strategy of mitigation. “The aim is not to slow the rate of growth of cases but actually pull the epidemic into reverse,” Neil Ferguson, one of the lead epidemiologists, said. Ferguson explained that this could take outright suppression until a vaccine has been found, which could be between twelve to 18 months. The economic consequences of this are mind-blowing. “We may well be ending up in a really quite different world for at least a year or more,” he said.

That said, other researchers at Oxford University had more-optimistic findings. If the epidemic in Italy and the U.K. began earlier than we supposed — say, by mid January — then half the country may already have been infected and therefore we may have already achieved “significant levels of herd immunity in both countries.” One way to find out if they’re right is to develop a test identifying who has already contracted the virus. This is well worth pursuing, regardless. Another way is to lift the quarantine; risk the collapse of the entire health-care system, and the lonely and premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, all while collapsing the economy.

During the First World War, many believed that it would be over by Christmas. Instead, as we know, it lasted four bitter years. The optimists of that period, the quick fixers, destroyed trust and earned only contempt. They also made tactical disasters that cost lives. One war poet, Siegfried Sassoon, satirized this well:

“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

These are confusing times, in which political promises, graphs, and data appear to most people as abstractions, whereas reports of deaths, joblessness, and front-line testimony are taken as news. Thanks to social media, we’re bombarded with much of this already. The on-the-ground reports are, indeed, disturbing — and we are only getting started. Of course, everyone wants to know there’ll be an end to the darkness. But in the face of such uncertainty, politicians would do better to court hope, not optimism.


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