America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral

As the U.S. heads toward the winter, the country is going round in circles, making the same conceptual errors that have plagued it since spring.

Illustrations of lungs, syringes, and ants swirl around a chaotic vortex
Aaron Marin

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Updated at 5:28 p.m. ET on September 13, 2020.

Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. enters the ninth month of the pandemic with more than 6.3 million confirmed cases and more than 189,000 confirmed deaths. The toll has been enormous because the country presented the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus with a smorgasbord of vulnerabilities to exploit. But the toll continues to be enormous—every day, the case count rises by around 40,000 and the death toll by around 800—because the country has consistently thought about the pandemic in the same unproductive ways.

Many Americans trusted intuition to help guide them through this disaster. They grabbed onto whatever solution was most prominent in the moment, and bounced from one (often false) hope to the next. They saw the actions that individual people were taking, and blamed and shamed their neighbors. They lapsed into magical thinking, and believed that the world would return to normal within months. Following these impulses was simpler than navigating a web of solutions, staring down broken systems, and accepting that the pandemic would rage for at least a year.

These conceptual errors were not egregious lies or conspiracy theories, but they were still dangerous. They manifested again and again, distorting the debate around whether to stay at home, wear masks, or open colleges. They prevented citizens from grasping the scope of the crisis and pushed leaders toward bad policies. And instead of overriding misleading intuitions with calm and considered communication, those leaders intensified them. The country is now trapped in an intuition nightmare: Like the spiraling ants, Americans are walled in by their own unhelpful instincts, which lead them round and round in self-destructive circles.

“The grand challenge now is, how can we adjust our thinking to match the problem before us?” says Lori Peek, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies disasters. Here, then, are nine errors of intuition that still hamstring the U.S. pandemic response, and a glimpse at the future if they continue unchecked. The time to break free is now. Our pandemic summer is nearly over. Now come fall, the season of preparation, and winter, the season of survival. The U.S. must reset its mindset to accomplish both. Ant death spirals break only when enough workers accidentally blunder away, creating trails that lead the spiraling workers to safety. But humans don’t have to rely on luck; unlike ants, we have a capacity for introspection.

The spiral begins when people forget that controlling the pandemic means doing many things at once. The virus can spread before symptoms appear, and does so most easily through five P’s: people in prolonged, poorly ventilated, protection-free proximity. To stop that spread, this country could use measures that other nations did, to great effect: close nonessential businesses and spaces that allow crowds to congregate indoors; improve ventilation; encourage mask use; test widely to identify contagious people; trace their contacts; help them isolate themselves; and provide a social safety net so that people can protect others without sacrificing their livelihood. None of these other nations did everything, but all did enough things right—and did them simultaneously. By contrast, the U.S. engaged in …

1. A Serial Monogamy of Solutions

Stay-at-home orders dominated March. Masks were fiercely debated in April. Contact tracing took its turn in May. Ventilation is having its moment now. “It’s like we only have attention for only one thing at a time,” says Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida.

As often happens, people sought easy technological fixes for complex societal problems. For months, President Donald Trump touted hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 cure, even as rigorous studies showed that it isn’t one. In August, he switched his attention to convalescent plasma—the liquid fraction of a COVID-19 survivor’s blood that might contain virus-blocking antibodies. There’s still no clear evidence that this century-old approach can treat COVID-19 either, despite grossly misstated claims from FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn (for which he later apologized). More generally, drugs might save some of the very sickest patients, as dexamethasone does, or shorten a hospital stay, as remdesivir does, but they are unlikely to offer outright cures. “It’s so reassuring to think that a magic-bullet treatment is out there and if we just wait, it’ll come and things will be normal,” Dean says.

Other strategies have merit, but are wrongly dismissed for being imperfect. In July, Carl Bergstrom, an epidemiologist and a sociologist of science at the University of Washington, argued that colleges cannot reopen safely without testing all students upon entry. “The gotcha question I’ve handled most from reporters since is: This school did entry testing, so why did they get an outbreak?” he says. It’s because such testing is necessary for a safe reopening, but not sufficient. “If you do it and screw everything else up, you’ll still have a big outbreak,” Bergstrom adds.

This brief attention span is understandable. Adherents of the scientific method are trained to isolate and change one variable at a time. Academics are walled off into different disciplines that rarely connect. Journalists constantly look for new stories, shifting attention to the next great idea. These factors prime the public to view solutions in isolation, which means imperfections become conflated with uselessness. For example, many critics of masks argued that they provide only partial protection against the virus, that they often don’t fit well, or that people wear them incorrectly. But some protection is clearly better than no protection. As Dylan Morris of Princeton writes, “X won’t stop COVID on its own is not an argument against doing X.” Instead, it’s an argument for doing X along with other measures. Seat belts won’t prevent all fatal car crashes, but cars also come with airbags and crumple zones. “When we layer things, we give ourselves more wiggle room,” Dean says.

Several experts I’ve talked with have been asked: What now? The question assumes that the pandemic lingers because the U.S. simply hasn’t found the right solution yet. In fact, it lingers because the familiar solutions were never fully implemented. Despite claims from the White House, the U.S. is still not testing enough people. It still doesn’t have enough contact tracers. “We have the playbook, but I think there’s a confusion about what we’ve actually tried and what we’ve just talked about doing,” Dean says. A successful response “is never going to be one thing done perfectly. It’ll be a lot of different things done well enough.” That resilience disappears if we create…

2. False Dichotomies

A world of black and white is easier to handle than one awash with grays. But false dichotomies are dangerous. From the start, COVID-19 has been portrayed as a disease that mostly causes mild symptoms in people who quickly recover, and occasionally causes severe illness that leads to hospitalization and death. This two-sided caricature—severe or mild, sick or recovered—has erased the thousands of “long-haulers” who have endured months of debilitating symptoms at home with neither recognition nor care.

Meanwhile, as businesses closed and stay-at-home orders rolled out, “we presumed a trade-off between saving lives and saving the economy,” says Danielle Allen, a political scientist at Harvard. “That was foolishness of the most profound degree.” The two goals were actually aligned: Epidemiologists and economists largely agree that the economy cannot rebound while the pandemic is still raging. By treating the two as opposites, state leaders rushed to reopen, leading a barely contained virus to surge anew.  

Now, as winter looms and the pandemic continues, another dichotomy has emerged: enter another awful lockdown, or let the virus run free. This choice, too, is false. Public-health measures offer a middle road, and even “lockdowns” need not be as overbearing as they were in spring. A city could close higher-risk venues like bars and nightclubs while opening lower-risk ones like retail stores. There’s a “whole control panel of dials” on offer, but “it’s hard to have that conversation when people think of a light switch,” says Lindsay Wiley, a professor of public-health law at American University. “The term lockdown has done a lot of damage.” It exacerbated the false binary between shutting down and opening up, while offering …

3. The Comfort of Theatricality

Stay-at-home orders saved lives by curtailing COVID-19’s spread, and by giving hospitals some breathing room. But the orders were also meant to buy time for the nation to ramp up its public-health defenses. Instead, the White House treated months of physical distancing as a pandemic-ending strategy in itself. “We squandered that time in terms of scaling up testing and contact tracing, enacting policies to protect workers who get infected on the job, getting protective equipment to people in food-processing plants, finding places for people to isolate, offering paid sick leave … We still don’t have those things,” says Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School and regular Atlantic contributor. The country is now facing the fall with many of the same problems that plagued it through the summer.

Showiness is often mistaken for effectiveness. The coronavirus mostly spreads through air rather than contaminated surfaces, but many businesses are nonetheless trying to scrub and bleach their way toward reopening. My colleague Derek Thompson calls this hygiene theater—dramatic moves that appear to offer safety without actually doing so. The same charge applies to temperature checks, which can’t detect the many COVID-19 patients who don’t have a fever. It also applies to the porous and inefficient travel bans that Trump and his allies still tout as policy successes. These tactics might do some good—let’s not conflate imperfect with useless—but they cause harm when they substitute for stronger measures. Theatricality breeds complacency. And by emphasizing solutions that can be easily seen, it exacerbated the American preference for …

4. Personal Blame Over Systemic Fixes

SARS-CoV-2 spread rapidly among America’s overstuffed prisons and understaffed nursing homes, in communities served by overstretched hospitals and underfunded public-health departments, and among Black, Latino, and Indigenous Americans who had been geographically and financially disconnected from health care by decades of racist policies. Without paid sick leave or a living wage, “essential workers” who earn a low, hourly income could not afford to quarantine themselves when they fell ill—and especially not if that would jeopardize the jobs to which their health care is tied. “The things I do to stay safe, they don’t have that as an option,” says Whitney Robinson, a social epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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