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This isn’t a COVID-19 wave — it’s a tsunami

What will we lose before we take this seriously?

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

This is what it took for local and state governments across this country to hit the brakes on their reckless reopening plans: 2.6 million people in the US infected with the coronavirus. 128,064 dead.

Thanks to inept leadership, miscommunication, and a deep sense of hubris, the first wave of this pandemic never ended. It just turned into a tsunami.

Here’s the thing about tsunamis: in deeper water, they’re barely a ripple, and they don’t hit all coastlines the same way. Given the right conditions, they might splash onshore like a small wave or be so distant that people have time to evacuate. But given the wrong conditions — an earthquake just off a coast, a lack of early warning systems — a tsunami wave can become a city-leveling monster.

The disturbance that kicked off this particular tsunami was the pandemic itself. Devastating waves shuddered out from the epicenter in China, hitting different countries at different times. Some countries, like New Zealand, heeded early warnings and acted swiftly to move their population to safety. The US did not.

Instead, leaders looked at China and Italy and pretended that it couldn’t happen here. The government dawdled on testing, it dragged its feet before shutting down travel and businesses, and it slapped together a weak economic package that forced average Americans to choose between risking their lives or their livelihoods.

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A server wearing a mask takes orders from a table of customers in Houston, Texas, in May.
Photo by Mark Felix / AFP via Getty Images

Political squabbling in New York delayed lockdowns and other safety measures as leaders like Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo played down the severity of the pandemic.

“Excuse our arrogance as New Yorkers — I speak for the mayor also on this one — we think we have the best health care system on the planet right here in New York,” Cuomo said in a press conference on March 2nd. “So, when you’re saying, what happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.”

A key tenet of surviving a tsunami is that you “DO NOT wait.” Tsunamis are fast and so are pandemics. Lingering on the coast while a wall of water barrels toward you will likely have the same result as dithering over lockdowns while a virus cough-surfs closer: death. Shutting down the country just one week earlier could have saved 36,000 lives, according to preliminary estimates from researchers at Columbia University — and 17,500 of those excess deaths were New Yorkers.

When the virus slammed into New York, people in other states brushed off the 24,866 dead and 394,079 cases. They said that wouldn’t happen here. That the rest of the country shouldn’t have to endure what New York was going through. Mired in denial, local governments looked out at an ocean of pain and figured that because they themselves couldn’t see the wave, they were going to be spared. But by the time you see a tsunami, it’s too late to run.

crowds of people walking in Florida, all without masks
People walk on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, Florida, on June 26th, 2020.
Photo by Chandan Khanna / AFP via Getty Images

Instead, local and state governments looked out at that blank horizon and pushed ahead with reopening plans, even as warning tremors showed up in their data. As case numbers rose in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom defended a widespread reopening. In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey’s government pushed for a rapid reopening that was later linked to a horrifying spike in cases. Now, Arizona and parts of California are closing down again, but only after thousands more people have fallen ill. It took record numbers of daily cases for the governors of Florida and Texas to slow their reopening plans. It took more than 120,000 deaths before Vice President Mike Pence and other Republican leaders started wearing masks.

Now we’re staring at the wreckage of flattened lives and battered communities while the tsunami crashes onto new shorelines still packed with people. No one knew when this pandemic would end in April. Months later, we still have no idea. Vaccines aren’t ready, treatments aren’t set, and in the United States, the virus is nowhere near contained.

“We’re not in the situation of New Zealand or Singapore or Korea where a new case is rapidly identified and all the contacts are traced and people are isolated who are sick and people who are exposed are quarantined and they can keep things under control,” Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview this week. “We have way too much virus across the country for that right now, so it’s very discouraging.”

If we keep going down this deadly road, then we could hit 100,000 cases per day, Anthony Fauci testified before Congress on Tuesday. “Clearly we are not in total control right now,” Fauci said. “It is going to be very disturbing, I will guarantee you that.”

Texas Hospitals Cope With State’s Surge In Coronavirus Cases
Medical staff in Texas pause with a deceased COVID-19 patient on June 30th, 2020.
Photo by Go Nakamura / Getty Images

It’s already disturbing. More than 120,000 people dead and counting is disturbing. (Unless you’re Mike Pence. Then it’s “remarkable progress.”)

We can recover from this. But in the words of Fauci: “The only way we’re going to end it is by ending it together.” For individuals, that means continuing to do things like avoid large gatherings, washing your hands, wearing a mask, and getting tested. For the government, it means putting aside the partisan bullshit, and figuring out how to make sure that people across the country can survive this — with our schools and businesses and lives intact. That means investing in our sorely neglected health infrastructure, bolstering economic support systems, and — oh, yeah — setting a decent example.

There are still people, including the president, who want to pretend that this virus will “sort of just disappear.” It won’t. There’s no outrunning this tsunami. The least we can do is learn from all of the people who have gotten swept up in its surge and do our best to keep the brutal toll from getting any higher.