The People (P): What is happening?
Answer (A): A virus has come.
P: Is it dangerous?
A: Very dangerous. But not dangerous to most. It strikes the elderly most viciously. But it can kill the middle-aged, the young, the thin, the healthy.
P: What should we do?
A: Stay away from others. Stay inside.
P: And then we won’t get the virus?
A: Absolutely you will get it. Everyone will get it.
P: Wait. No one told us this. They’re telling us to stay inside and we won’t get it.
A: Well, I’m telling you now. Almost everyone will get it. Seventy percent of you, give or take. Think about it. It’s everywhere, and there’s no vaccine. But we want everyone to get it at different times. Like on a schedule of getting it. At least 5 million people already have it in the United States.
P: Wait. 5 million? Everyone says 1 million.
A: That’s the known, confirmed cases. We just started testing in earnest like, an hour ago. For every case we know, there’s five, 10, 50 that we don’t know. Maybe they got it and were asymptomatic. Maybe they got sick but not sick enough to go the hospital or get tested. Five million is an extremely low estimate of how many cases there are. It’s probably more like 20 million.
A: That’s good news! In a way. That means it’s less deadly to most people than we thought. And it proves the inevitability of you getting it yourself. So stay inside until it’s your turn to get it.
P: How long should we stay inside?
A: I’m thinking two months. No, three. Six? No, 12. Yes, 12!
P: Then it will be gone?
A: The virus? Lord no. It could be 18 months till we get a vaccine. But by then you’ll have already gotten it, so the date doesn’t really matter. Especially given that the virus will come back double-strong in the fall.
P: So it’s less potent in the summer?
A: Absolutely not. Who told you that?
P: You just said it’ll come back stronger in the fall. Which implies its power is dissipated in the summer.
A: Are you a doctor? No? Good. Then pay attention. The virus is everywhere, in every city and state, but we’re flattening the curve. Then it’ll very likely come back with a vengeance in the fall. Winter, too. Also, in the meantime, it’ll be with us all summer with probably no change in its potency. Capiche?
P: No one’s giving us this information.
A: Well, you know how we’re stretching out the cases over a longer period of time? Flattening the curve? We’re also flattening the truth. So just stay inside, and you’ll be fine. Order stuff online. Support your local restaurant.
P: Whew. OK. We can do that.
A: But do so knowing that you are putting the lives of everyone at risk — the cooks, the clerks, the delivery people. I’m actually a bit shocked by your selfishness and the cavalier way you’re sacrificing the lives of people who have no choice but to expose themselves to grave danger during a pandemic.
P: It sounds like you’re saying we shouldn’t order stuff to be delivered.
A: You shouldn’t. Unless you want local businesses to die.
P: So we should support local businesses ...
A: Absolutely. While risking their workers’ lives. Yes. Order food, eat it, watch the news about the pandemic that can’t be stopped. Get plenty of sleep, and start smoking. Turns out smokers are less likely to get sick. Which only makes sense! So remember to exercise. Go for a run!
P: Where should we go for a run?
A: Ideally some place where you can spread out, where you aren’t in close proximity to other people.
P: Like the beach? A park?
A: Sure. Beaches and parks are wide-open spaces. They’re about as safe as you can be.
P: We just went to the beach and the park. There were hundreds of other people there.
A: You went to the beach? The park? What were you thinking? There are hundreds of people there! Go home. Be with your kids. Do you have kids?
A: Well, make sure they keep up with school. Keep up with their worksheets and Zoom, and check their work, and keep them off screens, and go outside and don’t worry about school. It’s a pandemic, after all.
P: Um. Many of the things you just said sound contradictory.
A: Not at all. I’ll rephrase: Your kids are living through a crisis. It’s all right if they feel anxious, or if you can’t maintain routines or keep up with regular school schedules. Just make sure they don’t fall behind and remember that kids thrive on routine. So stick to a schedule, but give them space, and stay inside, and go outside, and use technology to connect with teachers and friends and limit screen time.
P: Wait. So …
A: But enjoy some downtime together! Relax and watch a movie. Cook some food! Just don’t go to the stores, because that’s dangerous to everyone. Order in! But don’t. Stay home. Move to the country. And stay in the city. If you get sick, go to the hospital. But don’t get too sick, because you wouldn’t want to be going to one of those hospitals now! They’re full of sick people!
P: When did you say this would all end again?
A: Eighteen months. That said, the soonest we’ve ever come up with a vaccine was four years.
P: But everyone’s talking about reopening stores and everything now. How does that square with 18 months?
A: That’s easy. People will die.
P: Wait. What?
A: Oh sure. So many more. Oceans of people. Even just 1,500 a day for eighteen months means 800,000 in the U.S. alone will die from this virus. That’s what the Minnesota scientist says. Osterholm. He’s one of the foremost experts in the world. He’s been right every step of the way so far.
P: What? 800,000?
A: That’s if things stay more or less steady. It could be higher, much higher. With the easing of restrictions and all.
P: But isn’t the rate of death declining?
A: Friday was one of the deadliest days yet! And that’s after everyone’s been inside for a month. Once everyone goes back to work, it’ll probably go up significantly. Total bloodbath.
P: So why are we easing restrictions?
A: Something something the economy?
P: We don’t understand.
A: Listen. People are fatigued. They want to go back to work. They want to shop. More than anything, they want to roll balls toward white pins and make a loud bang-bang sound. And then possibly end up with a tube inserted in their trachea, helping them breathe while their lungs cease to function, until they almost invariably die and die alone.
P: Why don’t we just freeze the economy? Just close most businesses and have the government give everyone a living wage while we wait until there’s a vaccine?
A: Hmm. First of all, ridiculous. Second, that would take significant coordination between local, state and federal governments.
P: Can we do that?
A: Well. I don’t know … I mean … OK. For starters, we’d need superadvanced ways to coordinate everyone. We’d certainly need phones. Maybe e-mail. We might even need spreadsheets and/or computers.
P: Do we have all those things?
A: I think we … might? But there are still so many questions. Like, how would we know who to give money to? We’d have to have a national database with all the salaries of all the nation’s workers.
P: Don’t we have that? Seems like we could get that.
A: Here’s another plan: We promise money to pretty much every person and every business. We give this money to maybe half the people and to a very small percentage of businesses. We let big banks control most of this money meant for small businesses, and the big banks can funnel it to their biggest clients.
P: That sounds terrible.
A: Those big banks sure know how to handle cash!
P: It seems it would just be easier to give people the exact salaries they had before they lost their jobs to one of the deadliest viruses in 100 years. Just freeze everything. Just mutually agree to pause, together, so we don’t have to lose 730,000 more souls.
A: First of all: boring. Where’s the intrigue? The drama? With our system, you have wave after wave of unemployment, with no end in sight. Every week brings something new: business closures, bankruptcies and ruptures of the supply chain — a never-ending, cascading, domino-orgy of lost savings, empty storefronts and shattered dreams. That’s much more exciting than some boring old guaranteed income that would allow everyone to simply ride out the pandemic knowing their jobs and businesses would be there when the virus was defeated.
P: So there’s no plan.
A: Having no plan is the plan! Haven’t you been listening? Plans are for commies and the Danish. Here we do it fast and loose and dumb and wrong, and occasionally we have a man who manufactures pillows come to the White House to show the president encouraging texts. It all works! Eighteen months, 800,000 deaths, no plan, states bidding against states for medicine and equipment, you’re on your own, plans are lame.
P: I’m going to lie down. I don’t feel good.
A: Should we sing a patriotic song? I feel like our forebears would be so proud of us now. It’s just like how we all pulled together in World War II, every element of society, from the White House to Rosie the Riveter, with common purpose and shared sacrifice. This is just like that, except instead of coordination, we have competition, and instead of common cause, we have acrimony and chaos. Instead of fireside chats, F.D.R. and Churchill, we have tweets, Lysol and Ron DeSantis. Other than that, it’s exactly the same.
Dave Eggers is the founder of McSweeney’s and the author of “The Captain and the Glory,” among other books. He wrote this article for the New York Times.