(Bloomberg Opinion) – The United States has reached a landmark in its hitherto not very successful fight 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, an election issue with links to various left-wing groups. Given what we know about the spread of the disease from other sources, it sounds right. While this is sad news, it can also mark something of a positive turning point. More than anything else, the key to keeping Covid-19 under control seems to take it seriously, and knowing someone with the disease can do a lot to focus a person on the risks it poses.
That it has to come to this is, of course, tragic. An important enabler for the spread of coronavirus, especially in prosperous countries with the resources to stop it, has been an inability to imagine that what happened elsewhere could happen closer to home. Italians saw what was happening in China and failed to act on an early sign that they might be next. The New Yorkers saw what was happening in Italy and the mayor and the governor concluded that it was not Italy. Political leaders in Britain saw what was happening in Continental Europe and New York and seemed to think that their countrymen could only toughen it, before they changed course too late.
Within countries, an outbreak in a region can often translate into rapid changes in behavior everywhere. This was also true at first in the sprawling, polarized United States, where the actions of some government and local officials, President Donald Trump’s sudden (and, it turns out, temporary) transformation from coronavirus doubts to gnawing supporters of tough measures to stop it. and a kind of generalized public freak-out together prevented the epidemic from becoming national in the spring.
This success did not last. One reason, of course, was the president’s impatience, which after its own coronavirus working group issued a reasonable set of recommendations to safely reopen the country, states immediately ignored them. Given that much of the United States had barely been affected by the disease, it will always be a struggle to convince people outside of hard-hit areas to take it seriously and stick to practices such as social distancing or masking for a long time. This is proving to be the case elsewhere as well – the north-eastern Spanish region of Aragon, which only showed a modest spread of Covid-19 in March and April, is now the episode of a summer flare-up. But this is especially true in the United States, which has long been plagued by an epidemic of mistrust and disinformation that seems to make it really difficult for people in, say, suburban Tulsa to imagine themselves in New York shoes (and vice versa! ).
In April, I had extended email discussions with a couple of readers outside of New York who said they did not know anyone with Covid-19 and were clearly dubious about my claims that I made. Accusations that the disease was an ominous throat or almost harmlessly associated via social media. Even in mainstream media and academic research, mortality in the New York epidemic was often attributed to conditions unique to the big city (such as density and heavy reliance on public transportation) or to hospital policy for Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Some things about the New York Covid experience were clearly unique, and the eruptions that appear all over the sun belt this summer have generally been slower and (so far) less fatal. But they have also been much more widespread – to the extent that most Americans now know someone who has or has had Covid-19. Almost all Americans now live in communities where a large number of people have been infected with the coronavirus, which means that they will increasingly hear about the disease from local news sources that they trust more than national stores.
Of course, state and local politicians are also affected by these changing realities, which means that previously reluctant people are more likely to support measures to slow down the disease. But changes in individual attitudes seem to be at least as important as the government’s mandate. Here’s a chart of restaurant traffic in Arizona since the state began allowing indoor food on May 11th.
The number of newly confirmed coronavirus cases began to rise sharply in Arizona in late May. At the end of June, the state’s outbreak seemed spiraling out of control, with more than 3,000 new cases a day and the proportion of tests returning positive blowing over 20%. On June 29, Governor Doug Ducey closed bars, gyms and theaters, urging (but not demanding) wearing face masks, and on July 9, he limited indoor food in restaurants to 50% of capacity. But as the chart makes clear, the behavior had begun to change long before that, when Arizonans saw reports of increasing falls on local news and learned about friends who had been affected by the disease. During the process, they began to slow down the epidemic: The number of new reported cases peaked on July 1, which meant that new infections probably peaked a week or more before that. There are still too many infections and too high a positive test percentage to say that things are under control, but they are heading in the right direction, at least for now.
The major Covid-19 outbreaks in Florida and Texas also appear to have peaked, but these states have not yet seen such a large decline in cases as Arizona. This may be partly due to the fact that their population is spread over many metropolitan areas and media markets, which means that the local cycle of learning to take Covid seriously must happen again and again. Two-thirds of Ariason’s population lives in and around Phoenix, making the process much easier.
I realize that this is not the only possible explanation for current trends in coronavirus data. Hundreds of thousands of Arizonans (perhaps more than a million) have now recovered from and are currently likely immune to Covid-19, and this is sure to help curb the disease. But the fact that local outbreaks around the world have dropped at very different rates of infection (measured by subsequent antibody tests) point to behavioral changes and public order is in most cases the more important driving forces.
Covid-19 is usually not fatal and may become less so over time. It is not stuffable either. But when people think it does not exist, or does not get anywhere near them, or is virtually harmless or disappears soon, it has a nasty way of becoming a big, big problem. We have now reached a point where most Americans have a personal connection to the disease, which makes such denial much more difficult. That may turn out to be some good news.
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering companies. He was the editor of the Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banks. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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