What do you think the next few months look like in the U.S.?
What I think is going to happen is, two months from now, vaccinations are going to be everywhere. The place is just going to be flooded with available vaccines.
Then I think that we’re going to hit a tipping point not too far from now, assuming vaccinations keep up and nothing goes unusually crazy, where reopenings start happening really fast and at a rate that people aren’t really ready for. Because once they happen in some places, and they work, there is going to be unbelievable pressure to do them everywhere. So I think that we could be looking at a return to something much closer to normalcy, but not full 2019-style operations, by the end of May. But that is a prediction, not a promise.
What do you think is the biggest challenge to this optimistic viewpoint?
So I think there are a couple of things. A state’s reopening too quickly could create some real damage, both in terms of people getting coronavirus and dying when they were really close to safety. And also, if that happens, it’s going to push everybody else’s timetable back. For that exact same reason, there are the more contagious strains that are out there. So if you completely let up on the brakes in some of these places, you could have really fast infection increases and that would be really dangerous. And then if there’s anything that disrupts vaccine supply and distribution in the country, that’s always going to be a really big deal.
My optimism here is built on the pace of vaccinations in the U.S. But if we don’t figure out how to vaccinate the world quickly, then that’s billions of people the coronavirus could harm, kill or use to mutate into a vaccine-resistant form. So we can’t just think this is over when it looks over for us. For reasons both selfish and altruistic, we have a global responsibility here.
So you said we might return to something close to normal in May, but when do you think we’ll be back to 2019 levels of normal?
I have an exchange in my latest podcast with Dr. Ashish Jha, a health policy researcher at the Brown University School of Public Health, where he says something like there’s no going back to 2019 normal. And I’ve heard something like that a lot. But I think there are two versions of “things will never go back to 2019 normal” that people mean. There’s one version where what people are saying is it’s never going to be safe to do certain things again. And that doesn’t seem true.
On the other hand, as Dr. Jha says, pandemics change societies. So I think remote work is going to be more common. He was saying that he thinks there will be fewer 500-person lecture halls. It may take a long time for people to feel comfortable with activities that have once again become safe — there will be trauma and PTSD on a societal level from all this. So there may be social reverberations from this that may last longer than people think. That said, they also may not. I always think people underestimate the human animal’s ability to adapt and to snap back to an equilibrium.