We’re hearing a lot about “flattening the curve” and getting life back to normal within months. This is misleading. Until there’s a vaccine – which is at least a year away – life as we have known it will be only a memory.
Consider the curve; what it represents, what flattening really means. The curve represents the incidents of infection in the population. Flattening the curve – by social distancing, for instance – doesn’t end the contagion, it just spreads it over a longer period. That’s a good thing, because it reduces the burden on our health care system at any given time. If you need medical care or a hospital bed, you’re competing with fewer other patients. But in a way, flattening the curve is just kicking the can down the road. Unless you live in a bubble, the virus will find you – and each of us – sooner or later.
Once it’s in your body, the virus is nearly impossible to eradicate. There is no “miracle cure,” despite what our president says, any more than there’s a cure for the common cold or the flu or polio or smallpox. Treatments abound – from chicken soup to aspirin – but you probably don’t want to bet your life on them. Better therapies may be coming, but the best way to truly protect yourself is to boost your own immune system. Unfortunately, until we have a vaccine, the only way to do that is to contract the infection, suffer through it, and risk death to build up antibodies in your system. Not an option most of us would choose, but it may choose us regardless.
After enough of us survive the infection, the population will develop “herd immunity” that will dampen the rate of transmission. Think forest fire running out of trees. One consequence of flattening the curve is that it delays the development of herd immunity; it conserves fuel for the fire. As soon as we relax our social distancing, there’s nothing to prevent the infection from roaring back.
For the next year or so, everyone on the planet will fall into one of the following three categories. Many aspects of your life will depend on which category you are in:
- Vulnerable. That’s where most of us are now. Not a fun place to be. Living in constant fear of catching it. Practicing behaviors that provide the only protection we currently have: washing hands, wearing masks, avoiding contact with anyone who has the virus…or might have it. You won’t feel safe, and life will never return to normal for you, as long as you are in this category.
- Infected. If you have an active case of covid-19, you’re a threat to the vulnerable. Those of us who are skating through life with asymptomatic infections will soon face a different reality. Widespread testing will eventually get here, and when it does, everyone shedding virus – asymptomatic or not – will be identified and treated accordingly. No more guesswork. The vulnerable will know exactly who to fear.
- Immune. Long before we have a vaccine, we’ll have an antibody test that can determine if you’ve had the virus and are now immune. If you’re in this category, you’re one of the lucky ones. Throw away that mask! Sneeze and cough with abandon! You can’t get it and you can’t give it. Everyone loves you, because you can’t hurt them. But they might love you a little TOO much, because your blood contains antibodies that might confer immunity on others.
As bad as things are right now, we may be living through the best days of this pandemic. Because as long as we’re not sure who has it, who doesn’t, and who did, we really are all in this together. We’re in the same boat. We share the fear and uncertainty. But when we’re able to know definitively, through testing, who has it, who’s immune, and who’s still vulnerable, our relationships with each other will change. Not back to normal, and probably not for the better. We won’t all be in this together anymore. Maybe not for a long time.