Outbreaks of new respiratory illnesses have occurred before, including SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012, but few so virulent and frightening as Covid-19, which has struck a devastating blow to the heart of a globalized world. In the time of coronavirus, open borders and the free movement of people suddenly appear to be a serious liability. In February, Sky News aired a segment in which a reporter demonstrated how easy it was to drive the short distance from one of Italy’s “red zones” to the French ski resort of Chamonix, where he interviewed holidaymakers about the virus.
Now that the pandemic is undeniable, the speed with which the relevant numbers grow outdated is sobering: more than 438,000 cases of the novel coronavirus have been verified worldwide, and in the West, the outbreak is accelerating: 165,000 of those infections were confirmed just since last Friday night. Nearly 20,000 people have died.
Country after country, some rapidly but most reluctantly, has responded to this unprecedented threat by closing borders, shutting schools and businesses, and putting millions of people under quarantine. On March 23, Washington governor Jay Inslee issued a “stay home, stay healthy” order for all 7.6 million state residents. Photographs of a deserted Times Square, of the Spanish Steps in Rome devoid of tourists, and of empty stadiums drive home the reality of a deadly virus racing through global population centers, while the populace itself is practically standing still. As hospitals buckle under the strain, politicians and medical professionals alike have urged people to self-isolate in order to help “flatten the curve” so that new infections don’t overwhelm the health-care system.
But the engines of the economy can’t go cold without cost. Some 37 million American jobs are now at risk, according to one estimate, and multiple states have seen an explosive increase in the number of people applying for unemployment benefits. Scarcely halfway into the 15-day nationwide effort to “slow the spread,” President Trump appears to be chafing at the restrictions which have sent one of the strongest economies in American history—once the major selling point of his reelection campaign—tumbling to the brink of depression. Having said last week that the U.S. might not turn the corner until July or August, he reversed course this week. “Our country was not built to be shut down,” he said at a Monday press briefing. “We are going to get it all going again very soon.” On Tuesday, he got specific, saying he wanted the country reopened for business and “raring to go by Easter.”
Such a move could be disastrous. But if business-as-usual is unthinkable, a total shutdown is unsustainable. We need to innovate our way out of this crisis, not simply stop society in its tracks. Though the pandemic may last for months, encouraging early signs show that entrepreneurs, health-care workers, university researchers, and major corporations are rising to the challenge.
The few areas of the economy still booming have begun a hiring spree. Instacart plans to bring on 300,000 gig workers to handle a flood of grocery deliveries, more than doubling its existing work force, while Amazon wants to hire 100,000 new employees to meet rising demand as more Americans shop online for necessities. Similarly, Walmart intends to swell its labor force by at least 150,000 and hand out one-time bonuses to hourly employees—$300 for full-time workers and $150 for part-timers. Kroger and 7-Eleven together aim to bring on as many as 30,000 additional store employees. The coronavirus is also changing the way in which employees are onboarded. CVS Health on Monday announced plans to hire 50,000 new permanent and temporary workers through a technology-driven process that will include “virtual job fairs, virtual interviews, and virtual job tryouts.”
Companies not in a position to make new hires are nonetheless finding creative ways to use their existing assets. With travel and tourism on ice, Korean Airlines, Delta, and other carriers are pressing their idled passenger jets into service as freight planes. Fashion designers and clothing manufacturers, meantime, are converting their operations to make thousands of sorely needed surgical masks and hospital gowns.
Cell-phone location tracking, for which major technology companies have come under fire over the past 18 months, is getting a second look. A team led by researchers from MIT Media Lab has released a mobile app that harnesses user-location data to slow the spread of Covid-19. Called Private Kit: Safe Paths, the free app tracks your movements and then, if you have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, permits health officials to share your “location trail”—stripped of personally identifying information—with the public, allowing others to see if they have crossed paths with an infected person.
The encrypted data is shared directly between phones and isn’t stored or processed by a central authority. The hope is that the app could help to limit transmission of the virus while preserving users’ privacy. According to MIT Technology Review, team lead Ramesh Raskar thinks this “fine-grained tracking approach” could inform targeted, rather than blanket, shutdowns, thus sparing cities significant economic pain.
With new cases still piling up in emergency rooms, some of the most essential innovation is happening on the front lines. Craig Smith, head of surgery for the New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center hospital system, has been sending out daily Covid-19 updates. In his March 23 message, he reported that Columbia University engineers “have been working on 3D printing solutions to the scarcity of face shields. A larger engineering group is working on a variety of methods for sterilizing used masks.” With the elective-surgery schedule pared back, he added, operating rooms are being converted into intensive-care pods, with OR anesthesia machines providing extra capacity for ventilators.
These and many other adjustments will be required to combat this invisible enemy. It is decidedly not morning in America, but we may yet avoid plunging into bleak midwinter. Smith, in another of his updates, opened up about his struggle to strike what he called “the right balance between frightening facts and sunny-day optimism. In that balance lies solace,” he wrote, “but also resolve.”