Why You’re Totally Unprepared for the New Normal
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because life as we knew it has changed forever.
By Daniel Malloy
Remember the good ol’ days when conventional wisdom said the coronavirus would lose strength with the arrival of high temperatures? Alas, recent weeks have seen the virus roar back with a vengeance across most of the United States — and much of the world. As scientists race for a cure and businesses struggle to survive, our understanding of this global threat continues to shift by the day. One thing we do know: It’s going to change our lives permanently.
Today’s Sunday magazine dives into the state of the virus and efforts to fight it, as well as the changes it has wrought and the people taking on new prominence. We also take a look at the next pandemics: Where will they come from, and how can we prevent another catastrophe? Read on to find out.
What Do We Know?
- By the Numbers. America passed a grim milestone this week: 3 million cases of COVID-19. Deaths have topped 134,000, the most in the world, though the United Kingdom still leads major nations in most deaths per capita. The U.S. keeps setting daily case records, with spikes most pronounced in the South and the West, and deaths starting to rise after a brief lull. Elsewhere, South America is becoming a global hot spot, in particular Brazil. Bolivian interim President Jeanine Áñez and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro both tested positive for the virus this week.
- Tiny but Mighty. As the virus surges in the U.S., there are 12 states, most in the Northeast, where cases are decreasing. The chief virus wrangler at the moment? Rhode Island, where coronavirus cases have declined by more than 85 percent in the past six weeks, the most in the country. What’s going on? It starts with an aggressive attack by a governor who was in no hurry to reopen. Read more on OZY.
- Catch Me If You Can. Studies show that your blood type can have an impact on whether you catch the virus, and how bad it gets. Type A can be worse; Type O is better off. But it appears that all of us are more at risk in this don’t-call-it-a-second-wave: A new mutation of the virus has made it 10 times more infectious than the original strain emanating from Wuhan, China, according to one laboratory study. At least the latest research indicates that you probably can’t catch it twice for at least a few months — but longer-term results remain a mystery, given that this is a novel virus.
- In Treatment. This week, Gilead Sciences announced a new trial for the Ebola drug remdesivir for use in inhalers to fight the coronavirus — a significant step for at-home use. So far, remdesivir has been shown to help reduce hospital stays, but not to reduce deaths. The U.S. government has responded by buying up 90 percent of the world’s supply of the drug for the next three months. But to truly fight the virus, we’ll more likely need a cocktail of treatments, as with HIV. Doctors are having some success in treating COVID-19 with plasma from patients who have recovered from the disease, and Oxford researchers are bullish on a common steroid called dexamethasone.
- Political Science. President Donald Trump has consistently downplayed the virus — to his evident electoral peril — and even wearing a mask has become politicized. But on Saturday, Trump was photographed wearing a mask in public for the first time, on a trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, a sign that he finally realizes the benefit of mass masking to both public health and his reelection.
The Vaccine Race
- All Deliberate Haste. An unprecedented race is on to validate and mass-produce a vaccine for the virus, with millions of lives and billions of dollars at stake for the world’s drugmakers. Early leaders include AstraZeneca’s collaboration with the University of Oxford, as well as Chinese companies Sinopharm and Sinovac — all of which have moved to large-scale human trials. But an experimental technology called mRNA could move faster. Read more about one vaccine scientist on OZY.
- Operation Warp Speed. The U.S. government is doling out billions of dollars to drug companies to mass produce the vaccines — even before they’ve been proven to work. Last week, the Trump administration announced a $1.6 billion deal with Novavax with the goal of producing 100 million doses by year’s end. Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and AstraZeneca have also gotten government cash. Read how big pharma’s reputation is on the line on OZY.
- October Surprise. Pfizer’s CEO says he expects FDA approval as soon as October, after its vaccine (in collaboration with Germany’s BioNTech and China’s Fosun Pharma) aced small-scale human trials. AstraZeneca/Oxford could also be ready in October — at least for certain segments of the population. That lines up perfectly with political incentives for Trump, who would love to be able to tout a successful vaccine before Election Day.
- Vaccine Equity. Even if a vaccine is approved, it’s not like everyone can run down to Walgreens and get a shot. So while production ramps up, who goes first? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working on a prioritization plan that starts with medical and national security workers and then — controversially — favor Black and Latin Americans, who have been disproportionately affected by the crisis. Read about Black women’s extra burden on OZY.
- China First. There is one vaccine that has already been approved for limited use — but only for China’s military. CanSino and the People’s Liberation Army developed a vaccine using an adenovirus, and China fast-tracked the approval as a special use for the military. No one will say whether the vaccine is required or merely voluntary for China’s soldiers. It has also been approved for human trials in Canada.
- What It Feels Like. “We’re all starved for hope. I get it. But this isn’t magic. It’s science, which means protocols and phases and data to collect. There has to be room for trial and error. That’s part of what they’re learning from me.” Ian Haydon, one of the first humans to receive the Moderna vaccine, shared with the Washington Post the ups and downs that come with a clinical trial.
How the World Has Changed
- I Believe I Can Fly. The world’s tourist destinations are slowly starting to reopen — see a handy timeline here — but United Airlines’ announcement last week of 36,000 employees being laid off by October was an ugly reminder that travel isn’t bouncing back anywhere close to where it was. What’s next? Americans won’t be super welcome overseas for a while (Europe has already declared a travel ban) and the airlines will compete not on amenities but on how well they disinfect. Read more on OZY.
- Lip Service. Lipstick is so 2019. Why? Because we live in an age when not wearing a mask is for dummies, and masks are the ultimate cosmetic concealer. In fact, a recent McKinsey report found that lip makeup sales — believed to be the type of impulse buying that survives downturns — fell 15 percent year-on-year in the U.S. this spring. Read more on OZY.
- Geo-Blocked Concerts. Not only are we working remotely but — at least the responsible among us — are partying remotely too. Deprived of writhing fans crowding mosh pits, artists are getting creative. London-based folk singer Laura Marling has already sold out two remote concerts targeted to certain locations, with private video links. Read more on OZY.
- Flex Jobs. Many of us have become better acquainted with Zoom, Slack and other work-from-home tools in recent months, but the work revolution post-pandemic will be as much about when as where. Removing workers from the rhythms of office life has upended work hours as well, and gig work, rotations and tours of duty become easier remotely. One other outcome: Many low-wage service workers are emerging with a new moniker, “essential,” and knowledge of their power.
The Next Pandemics
- Virus Hunters. Even as the world grapples with a coronavirus crisis that still has not peaked, researchers, governments and global agencies like the World Health Organization are scrambling to prepare for the next pandemic. But it’s a daunting challenge — an estimated 1.6 million unknown viruses lurk in animals that might infect humans. And growing global mistrust of scientific experts and governments raises the risks of a pathogen that might otherwise have been stopped turning into the next global killer. Read more on OZY.
- Chronic Bubonic. Local authorities in China’s Inner Mongolia region are on high alert after confirming a case of bubonic plague. Yes, that bubonic plague, which ravaged 14th-century Europe, killing an estimated 50 million people. Rats were the main culprit then, but modern Mongolian cases have been traced to eating marmot meat. The good news: The plague is curable in most cases.
- At the Zoo. Noticing a pattern yet? Zoonotic diseases, which jump from animals to humans, are some of the biggest threats we face. A new United Nations report pitches some solutions, such as strengthening the monitoring of the food system and improving animal health. So should the planet go vegan? It might help, but would not eliminate all human-animal interactions that could spread these viruses.
- Bioweapons on the Loose? While politically motivated speculation that the coronavirus emerged from a lab accident in Wuhan (or the U.S., depending on the accuser) is most likely not true, escaped bioweapons are not to be taken lightly. Nearly 100 people died after a 1979 anthrax leak from a Soviet lab. A U.S. Army lab in Maryland that studies the world’s most dangerous pathogens was partially shut down over safety concerns last year, before reopening this spring. With adversaries like terror groups and North Korea pursuing bioweapons, there are plenty of possible premeditated sources for the next pandemic.
- Clusterfudge. Perhaps the biggest question for parents, students and the economy is: When can kids go back to school? The answer: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The CDC has put out guidelines for U.S. schools to consider, such as spacing desks 6 feet apart and having students eat at their desks rather than in a cafeteria. (The American Academy of Pediatrics also has a guide.) Trump is taking the productive step of tweeting in all caps about this, threatening to cut federal funding from districts that don’t reopen.
- School’s In. Florida and Texas are planning to open as normal — even as virus cases spike — while the nation’s largest public school system, New York City, says it will only partially reopen. State and district plans for reopening remain a constantly changing patchwork.
- Lessons From Abroad. Denmark and Finland were among the first to reopen their schools, with both nations phasing in starting with the youngest children. Denmark mandated extra spacing and hand-washing, and encouraged more classes to be held outside. Wuhan went back to school with mass testing and temperature checks. And the Australian state of New South Wales is starting with one day a week of in-person instruction. The good news? Overseas school reopenings have not tended to be linked with large outbreaks, though there was an event at an Israeli high school pinned on a superspreading teacher.
- Higher Learning. America’s college campuses are finding themselves constantly shifting as well. Many schools brought back athletes to train for the return of sports (often a critical cash cow), but the result was clusters of coronavirus cases. Tales abound of hard-partying collegians with little interest in social distancing making life risky for faculty and staff. Meanwhile, several schools that are keeping students away are suing the Trump administration, which wants to kick international students out of the country if they’re unable to take in-person classes. Distance learning also raises the thorny question of whether students should have to keep paying full tuition. Harvard, for example, is raising tuition about $2,000 this fall, to more than $49,000 — not including room and board.
The New Players
- The Landless Workers Movement. A group of Marxist farmers that has squatted on government land since the 1980s has become a pandemic-fighting force in Brazil. While President Jair Bolsonaro has tried to downplay the virus and institute half-measures for economic recovery, the activist group has given out more than 1,500 tons of food and 60,000 lunch boxes to homeless families. It has also distributed medical equipment and health education materials to those in need. Read more on OZY.
- KK Shailaja. The health minister of the Indian state of Kerala, which has seen only a handful of deaths among its 35 million people, has become a global star and was recently honored by the United Nations. But the cheerful former schoolteacher is not out of the woods yet: She instituted a new triple-lockdown on Friday after a superspreader event in the coastal city of Thiruvananthapuram.
- Eric Yuan. The CEO of videoconferencing company Zoom has seen his personal wealth leap nearly $12 billion during the pandemic along with the San Jose company’s stock price, as “zoom” becomes a verb nearly on par with google or tweet. But the more money Yuan comes across, the more problems he encounters: Zoom has come under scrutiny for security lapses and for canceling the accounts of activists who hosted a call about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, a taboo topic in China.
- Michelle vanDellen. The University of Georgia psychologist is helping coordinate the world’s biggest pandemic behavioral study, with some 60,000 participants across 100 countries. One early finding: Economic concerns, rather than health ones, more directly correlate with people taking precautions — meaning that emphasizing financial fears could incentivize more responsible public health behavior. Read more on OZY.
- Daniel Malloy