The national mobilization against the coronavirus is now in full swing. Schools and workplaces nationwide have shuttered. The government has recommended that people not gather in groups of 3 or more. Social distancing and self-isolation are now becoming part of the daily life. This has all sparked a serious question among many people: Are we overreacting?
To someone who hasn’t been following the pandemic’s spread closely, the drastic measures indeed might seem like an overreaction. After all, around 600 cases and 10 deaths — as of Tuesday — in a country of 1.3 billion doesn’t seem that bad. Is it really worth shutting down the economy, a measure that will of course have horrific costs of its own, for such a small toll? But the numbers mask what’s really causing experts to worry: The coronavirus’s trajectory is putting us on a course of many, many more cases and many, many more deaths unless we do something drastic. In other words, there’s a simple answer to the question: No, we’re not overreacting.
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A couple of weeks ago, Italy was much like us, with 470 deaths on Feb. 26. But things were already rapidly getting worse; by March 20, more than 4000 people were dead, and today more than 6.800 are. That makes Italy the epicenter of coronavirus fatalities in the world, with more deaths than even China, where the outbreak started. Hospitals have been pushed to the breaking point, with doctors and nurses without adequate protective equipment collapsing at work and other doctors reporting that patients won’t all get lifesaving care because there isn’t enough of it to go around. What’s scary about Italy’s experience is that Italy wasn’t exactly passive in its response to the virus. The country did act, quarantining a dozen towns in northern regions on February 23, urging the public to engage in social distancing, and ordering the closure of all schools nationwide on March 4. But case numbers kept growing. On March 8, Italy locked down the north of the country, and on March 9 it extended the lockdown to the whole country. Now, it looks like these extreme efforts might have slowed the rate of growth of cases. On March 15, there were 3,590 new cases. On March 16, 3,233. On the 17th, 3,526. And on the 18th, 4,207. That’s not exponential growth, suggesting the lockdown really did help — but those still aren’t good numbers, especially when Italy’s hospitals are already overwhelmed. Italy has been devastated by the virus because the action it took was just a little too moderate, a little too restrained, and a little too slow. The country took measures that were substantial and costly but nonetheless insufficient to actually bring the epidemic to a halt.
There’s some reason to think we won’t be hit as hard as Italy. Italy’s population is older than ours, and older people are hit hardest by the virus. And comparing confirmed cases across countries is difficult anyway, because most countries are under-testing and it’s hard to be sure who is under-testing more. But the bottom line remains that there’s no real reason to think measures that didn’t suffice in Italy will suffice here. The lesson from Italy isn’t just that you have to act before your hospitals are overwhelmed. It’s that you have to take steps that appear in the moment to be an exceptional overreaction — because by the time it looks like the steps you’re taking are appropriate, it will have been too late.
To break away from Italy’s trajectory, we have to respond with stronger measures than Italy. We have to respond in ways that feel like an overreaction. In the past few days, we’ve seen the Indian steps that are stronger than Italy’s responses at a similar point in the outbreak — steps like the complete lockdown of all states for 21 days [starting 25th March]. That’s what it will take to give ourselves a chance at a different curve.