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This Story About Coronavirus Is Both Deeply Alarming and Deeply Calming

A worker wears a mask as a preventive measure against COVID-19 as he rides away after removing Lunar New Year decorations from a street in Beijing on February 27, 2020. (GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

How do you stop a virus that spreads easily and is often asymptomatic? Answer: you don’t. In the most useful piece anyone’s written about current Coronavirus epidemic the Atlantic‘s, James Hamblin explains why COVID-19 could become everyone’s new normal, and why our energy is better spent on long-term responses than short-term panic.

Despite the apparent ineffectiveness of such measures—relative to their inordinate social and economic cost, at least—the crackdown continues to escalate. Under political pressure to “stop” the virus, last Thursday the Chinese government announced that officials in Hubei province would be going door-to-door, testing people for fevers and looking for signs of illness, then sending all potential cases to quarantine camps. But even with the ideal containment, the virus’s spread may have been inevitable. Testing people who are already extremely sick is an imperfect strategy if people can spread the virus without even feeling bad enough to stay home from work.

Lipsitch predicts that within the coming year, some 40 to 70 percent of people around the world will be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. But, he clarifies emphatically, this does not mean that all will have severe illnesses. “It’s likely that many will have mild disease, or may be asymptomatic,” he said. As with influenza, which is often life-threatening to people with chronic health conditions and of older age, most cases pass without medical care. (Overall, about 14 percent of people with influenza have no symptoms.)

Lipsitch is far from alone in his belief that this virus will continue to spread widely. The emerging consensus among epidemiologists is that the most likely outcome of this outbreak is a new seasonal disease—a fifth “endemic” coronavirus. With the other four, people are not known to develop long-lasting immunity. If this one follows suit, and if the disease continues to be as severe as it is now, “cold and flu season” could become “cold and flu and COVID-19 season.”

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