One August day in 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II addressed the German troops who were leaving for the front lines of the new war that was at that moment tearing a gash through Luxembourg and Belgium on its way to France. The Kaiser was in a jaunty mood. The great German army would be no match for the French. “You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees,” he assured his troops.
Across the English Channel, the British were only slightly less optimistic but just as exhilarated. There the rallying cry was that “the boys” would be “home by Christmas.” This would all be a grand adventure; who would want to miss out on such sport? That was the recruiting message and thousands of British lads rushed to take part in the scrap. We now know just how fearfully wrong those predictions turned out to be. By the time the leaves started to fall, the great armies of Europe were mired in a bloody stalemate and casualties already passed the 250,000 mark. Half the British army had gone down. By the time Christmas came, the armies were digging their gruesome trenches and the only soldiers coming home to Britain were the wounded.
We cite all this history, now more than a century past, to offer some perspective on our current situation. We are currently in a war of a different sort. “We’re in a biological war,” is how Gov. Ralph Northam has put it and, as a doctor, he knows more about biology than most of us. President Trump’s sunny optimism toward the COVID-19 virus is of a Kaiser-like quality.
“We have it totally under control,” he declared on Jan. 22. “It’s one person coming in from China.” “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China; it’s going to be fine,” he said on Feb. 2. “The coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” he said again on Feb. 24. Two days later, on Feb. 26, when there were more cases, he insisted that “the 15 cases within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” The very next day, on Feb. 27, he went even further: “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
The last claim may someday come true but it’s clear that day is not anytime soon. Even his “aspiration” that the United States re-open for business on Easter quickly proved unrealistic. Trump now says “social distancing” should continue through the end of April but that’s not what the medical experts say. A study by researchers at the University of Washington has attempted to project when the pandemic will peak in each state, based on the known number of infections, and what social-distancing guidelines have been implemented. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation says the first state to peak will be New Jersey on April 8, followed by New York and Vermont on April 9. Most states will peak by late April, well after Easter. But for 10 states, the peak will come in May. Virginia is shown as having one of the latest peaks of all: May 20. (Missouri is the latest, on May 21). Before Northam issued his stay-at-home order, the IHME projected Virginia would peak on May 28, so he’s projected to have saved us eight days. There are lots of different models out there (you can find this one at https://covid19.healthdata.org/projections) but this certainly helps explain why Northam’s stay-at-home order runs through June 10, when deaths are still projected at 38 per day. (Republicans suspicious why this order covers the date of their June 9 U.S. Senate primary should consult this chart; the virus does not care about politics.) So much for packing the churches on Easter. So much for having this under control. So much for the cases going to “close to zero.” The IHME projections show Virginia peaking at 59 deaths per day on May 20 and staying at 59 deaths per day until May 24 when we drop to 58. The deaths decline slowly through June, but still at double-digit rates higher than in April, until there’s a sharp fall-off in early July. Not until July 16 is Virginia shown as having no virus-related deaths. By then, the IHME data says that 3,152 Virginians will have died from the virus. These projections are updated daily, and each day they’ve gone up, not down.
More projections: At these rates, some states will have enough ICU beds, but some won’t. If these projections come true, Virginia will be better off than most — we’d be short 698 ICU beds and 750 ventilators. For comparison purposes, Tennessee will be short a staggering 1,799 ICU beds and 1,943 ventilators.
This is the math we’re dealing with —and the math we’re trying to change. We are long past the metaphorical leaves-falling stage; we’re long past a metaphorical Christmas, too. Fighting this virus won’t last as long as World War I did (at least we hope not) but it should be clear that this won’t just be a few weeks of staying home and binging on Netflix. Northam has not dominated the news the way, say, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has, but perhaps he should. Northam is the one who has repeatedly said that we are in “a period of sacrifice” and that we need to “live differently” to break the transmission of the virus. These are things Trump should have been saying all along, but couldn’t bring himself to until this week when he finally said Americans should brace for a “very, very painful two weeks.” Even that time period seems too optimistic. During times of crisis — this certainly qualifies as one — we need leaders who are unafraid to deliver hard truths.
Trump is understandably concerned about the economy, as any president would be. He’s also understandably concerned about his own re-election prospects, as any politician naturally is. However, from a purely political standpoint, he’d be better to enact harsh medicine now and own it in hopes that we really can stamp out this virus by summer. The worst political scenario for him would be if either (a) the virus lingers and the economy tanks all through the fall or (b) we declare a premature victory and the virus comes back in the fall. That would be the worst kind of “October surprise.”
Another World War 1 analogy: The military leaders of the day knew far better than the politicians just what kind of grim business they were being sent to conduct. At one of Britain’s first war councils, Gen. Douglas Haig warned his comrades this would not be a short, easy war. Instead, as one colleague remembered it, Haig warned that “the war would inevitably be a prolonged struggle, and would require the development of the full force of the British Empire to achieve success.” He certainly wasn’t predicting the boys would be home by Christmas.
The lesson from all this: We need to prepare ourselves for a long siege, in which we’re all being asked to do our part to keep each other safe.