There is an extremely sobering report in today’s New York Times that cites an even more sobering report by London infectious disease experts, predicting that while shutting schools and businesses and other extreme “social distancing” measures can be very effective at reducing the number of coronavirus cases in a matter of weeks (that’s good!), a more-or-less-total lockdown would need to be in place until a vaccine is developed or else cases would immediately flare up again to catastrophic levels (that’s eeeagh!).
The Times article and the London report are both worth reading, but here’s the key chart from the latter:
The green and orange lines are what we want to look at here: They represent the consequences of imposing five months of school closings and “social distancing” measures like we’re now heading toward (the San Francisco Bay Area is now on full Italy-style lockdown as of this morning, and I expect — I hope — that other regions will soon follow suit). As you can see, even without closing schools the curve flattens dramatically, though a closeup view shows that closing schools (green line) can make a huge difference in keeping hospitals from being overwhelmed:
The problem comes when we get to the right side of the graph, after the theoretical five-month “suppression” measures (the blue shaded area) are lifted. As you can see, about six weeks later, infections surge again, and we’re soon right back where we are now, with hospitals overwhelmed and millions of deaths. At which point the only possible solution is to go back on lockdown, resulting in a one-month-outside-two-months-inside cycle that would have to continue until a vaccine or other prophylactic treatments are developed:
Aside from being a terrifying vision of our potential near future — early vaccine trials have already begun, but even then a best-case scenario is no vaccine will be ready until well into 2021 — clearly this would mean the sports world isn’t going to return to normal anytime soon, unless all sports seasons can be reduced to four-week tournaments.
(Interestingly, the London report says that “Stopping mass gatherings is predicted to have relatively little impact because the contact-time at such events is relatively small compared to the time spent at home, in schools or workplaces and in other community locations such as bars and restaurants.” That would imply that what’s mostly important is keeping people from prolonged contact in enclosed spaces like schools and offices, not going to outdoor concerts or sporting events — something that other anecdotal evidence is already hinting at. Still, it’s hard to envision a world where nobody goes to work or school but everybody still goes to baseball games.)
So are we really doomed to a year or two of, at best, sports becoming a sporadic series of empty-stadium events to keep us entertained once we’ve exhausted everything available on Netflix? Maybe … but then there is the contradictory series of articles coming out of China, which, we are told, is rapidly returning to normalcy after seeing new infections peak, then fall:
For a city whose soul is “hotpot flavoured”, as some playfully describe it, the reopening of Chengdu’s hotpot restaurants gives residents an almost unparalleled reassurance that the worst of the outbreak has indeed passed.
“We are only allowed to accept 50 percent of our restaurant’s maximum capacity for dine-in guests, and that’s the rule for all restaurants in Sichuan (the surrounding province),” Xiao Ma, a waiter at Shudaxia, a famous hotpot restaurant in Chengdu, said. “But in the last few days, we have been hitting that line almost non-stop.”
If true, that could be a sign that it’s easier than the London experts are assuming to get infection rates down to a point where they can be kept low by universal testing and contact tracing, plus immediate quarantining of anyone found to be infected and their contacts. In other words, get back to the containment phase, where more severe mitigation and suppression measures are no longer necessary.
Or it could just be that China is in the flat part of the curve in the middle of that top chart, and is mere weeks away from a flareup of infection rates, and reimposition of a lockdown. Everybody should have all eyes on what happens there, then, because it could determine whether the worst of this could be over soon — as YouTube Italians want to tell their past selves — or if this is just the very beginning of an unimaginably long slog.