Breathing room

I listen to podcasts and the radio when I’m driving. I heard an interview yesterday that gave me a lot to think about.

Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist who teaches at the University of North Carolina, has said we as a society are misunderstanding the impact the coronavirus is going to have on our lives. She takes the controversial position that crowds of people at the beach are not the problem, and that allowing young people to gather outside, with reasonable precautions, should be encouraged, not discouraged.

Why? Because, she says, this is going to be going on for a long while. And it’s safer to gather outside than indoors. So if you want compliance, you have to offer people a release valve, a way to reclaim some sense of normality. Outside, very simply, is a lot safer than inside. Crowds on the beach, she says, aren’t the problem.


The lack of outbreaks among Black Lives Matter protests seems to support her position.

Here’s where she stopped me in my tracks, with a statement that was so obvious, but so hard to accept that I realized I have been in denial, along with everyone else.

Flattening the curve, she said, was the buzzword in New York as we battled the rising infection rates this spring. Flattening the curve is now the goal in the rest of the country, while we carefully monitor our statistics to try to keep the numbers low.

But Tufekci said we’ve all misunderstood what that phrase meant. Flattening the curve was not the end goal, she said. It doesn’t mean that all is well, or even that we’re winning the battle against the virus.

The push to flatten the curve was to create some breathing room, “to get our act together,” as she put it. Fewer cases gave researchers space to work on effective treatments, maybe even a vaccine. It relieved the stress on hospitals and healthcare workers.

But flattening the curve didn’t mean the virus was gone, or even manageable. It meant we’d managed to hold it back. And the methods we used to hold it back, masks, distancing, even changing the way we do business, will have to be continued until science comes up with an answer.

In other words, this strange new reality in which we live is reality, not a temporary pause. And it’s pretty clear we don’t have our act together.

She points out that we’ve actually been lucky. This isn’t a particularly deadly virus, though it’s an extremely spreadable one. She wasn’t being facetious, nor was she minimizing the death toll that rises every day. Studies show that Covid-19’s mortality rate is about one per cent.The Spanish flu of 1918, by contrast, killed 2.5 percent of the people who got it.

So the news could be worse.

But it is definitely a jolt to realize that the short-term goal we all worked together to achieve, flattening the curve, wasn’t the final goal. It was just a pit stop, a breather. And a research group called Covid Act Now predicts that New York and New Jersey are no longer on track to contain the virus. Instead, the growth in this state is described as “slow and controlled.”

That doesn’t sound like a huge win to me. We are going to have to do better.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Susan Barnett.