Will We Ever Grasp the Enormity of the Pandemic?
As long as we focus on deaths and statistics, the bigger story of Covid-19 will go untold
On Tuesday, March 3, 2020, Alex Goldstein, the founder of a Boston strategic-communications company, spent the entire day counting mail-in ballots for the Massachusetts presidential primary. He was locked into an unventilated, 20-by-20-foot room with 30 other volunteers, most of them elderly. They all tore into lukewarm pizzas with their ink-grubby hands, clowned for photos, and gossiped a little about a “foreign crisis” in China and Italy — the novel coronavirus.
Seven Americans had died, but the disease still felt remote. The World Health Organization was declining to call the disease a pandemic. Community spread had not been identified in Massachusetts. At least 10 days before, roughly 175 executives with the drug company Biogen had met for a conference at a nearby hotel, the Boston Marriott; the event would seed 300,000 infections from Boston to Slovakia. But as far as Goldstein and his fellow volunteers were still concerned, the burdensome part of this virus was having to remember to sing “Happy Birthday” two times when they washed their hands.
One week later, Goldstein woke up and the world had changed. The day before, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had plummeted 7.8%. New cases were popping up from Iowa to Washington, D.C., the Coachella music festival was called off, and Boston canceled its St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “We can’t be doing the kinds of things we were doing a few months ago,” warned Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a White House press conference. Goldstein realized a photo of himself clowning shoulder-to-shoulder with elderly strangers while counting ballots was the most recent photo on his phone. He called all four of his employees and told them not to come into the office.
The newspapers filled with jargon: “pulse oximeter,” “underlying conditions,” “incubation period,” “social distancing.” Numbers were everywhere, as if the right one — case-fatality rate…