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How long will it take to conquer the coronavirus — and what sort of society will it leave behind?

How long will it take to conquer the coronavirus — and what sort of society will it leave behind?
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With the governors of four states – Florida, Mississippi, Nevada and Pennsylvania – putting their citizens on lockdown last week, and the cascading spread of coronavirus cases in the United States doubling every fifth day, the riddle of the tragedy is when will it all end.

At the moment, 41 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have issued stay-at-home orders, with some metropolitan areas in states without such orders – including Birmingham, Alabama; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Houston and Dallas, Texas – also under mandatory lockdown. That brings about 90 percent of America's population, or about 297 million people, under some form of confinement.

Leadership has certainly not come from the politicians. Rep. Devon Nunes (R-Calif.) thinks that Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomLongtime Newsom adviser arrested on domestic violence charges US records over 14 million coronavirus cases Overnight Health Care: Biden asked Fauci to serve as chief medical adviser | COVID-19 relief picks up steam as McConnell, Pelosi hold talks | Rhode Island Gov. Raimondo says she won't be Biden's HHS secretary MORE’s (D-Calif.) decision to close his state’s schools was “way overkill,” even as President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE praised the decision.

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Some state governors, including New York’s Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoHundreds protest over NY bar owners arrested for coronavirus violations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates Supreme Court sees new requests for religious COVID-19 carve-outs MORE, have shown amazing grace in the face of the public health crisis. Cuomo features a down-to-earth speaking style that leaves Trump at the gate. Others, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantis Florida officials were asked to avoid public statements on coronavirus before election: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates DeSantis doubles down on Trump-backed coronavirus approach MORE, have been late to the party. DeSantis wins the “dumbest governor” award. He has over 12,000 confirmed statewide cases and 221 deaths to answer for. Yet, it took a call from Trump last week to push DeSantis into ordering a one-month statewide lockdown, which became effective April 3. Exempt from the DeSantis order are gatherings for religious purposes, which may only result in culling the herd of the devoutly faithful.

Washington apparently didn’t get the memo from Cuomo that “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” Our national leadership fails us because it is so politicized. Reality TV politics dictates which states get what share of their medical needs. Trump seemed to suggest that only “grateful” states will get a lifeline. Newsome claims the federal government sent him 170 broken ventilators.

Americans are politically polarized over the science. New polls suggest that Democrats are more concerned than Republicans about getting the coronavirus 97 percent to 80 percent, while independents fall in between, with 92 percent. Only 3 percent of Democrats and 8 percent of independents are not concerned, compared with 20 percent of Republicans. They should take a poll on the percentage of Democrats, Republicans and independents who prefer death over life.

The administration has botched its response to the crisis with grotesque incompetence. As Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Tribe and vocal Trump critic tweeted: “Only a unified federal response, including federalization of the medical supply and distribution chain, can prevent catastrophe from becoming apocalypse. The longer the Trump administration waits to step up to that responsibility, the more lives will be needlessly lost.”

America’s greatness currently resides in its people, not its leaders. Churchill counseled, “In war, resolution,” and Americans have risen to the task.

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The overwhelming majority of Americans have taken steps to make sure they leave their residence as little as possible. Actually, people feel a patriotic call to national sacrifice – to stay home – for the welfare of themselves and others. Survivors of the infection are generously donating blood plasma to be transfused into afflicted patients. The antibodies in the plasma of the infected patients may help eliminate the virus from the second patient.

Americans want safety for themselves and their families, but they also want their country back. The current scientific thinking is to introduce mass testing so we can get a handle on the extent of infection. Tests may reveal which are the low-risk areas and which areas must remain under lockdown. What is not commonly known, however, is that there is one test kit to a patient. It will take millions of kits in the United States for scientists to garner sufficient samples to achieve statistical significance. And we lack sufficient kits to accomplish this.

Government testing in the United States has been notoriously spotty. Tests are largely limited to health care workers, the elderly and the seriously symptomatic. In some localities, medical schools have had to develop their own testing techniques to supplement local governments. But these efforts have been hampered by limited supplies of swabs and reagents necessary for the testing, and a lack of personal protective equipment for testing personnel.

There is much we still don’t know, and mass testing may not be the answer. How accurate are the tests? Experts believe nearly one in three infected patients are getting a negative result, indicating a low sensitivity for existing tests. Will the virus subside over the summer months like other flu viruses? Will those who have been infected have immunity, and, if so, for how long? Will there be a recurrence as flu season starts in the fall?

Scientists may come up with a vaccine, as they did for polio and smallpox and a host of other life-threatening diseases. But how close are we to an effective, low-cost vaccine for this virus? Scientists say there will not be one in 2020. The best bet in the near term is an effective therapeutic drug. Here we are further along with antiviral and antibody drugs where early clinical trials appear promising.

With at least 6.6 million people unemployed, politicians will be tempted to lift the lockdown to save the economy. As Trump put it: “I want fans back in arenas.... They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey. They want to see their sports. They want to go onto the golf courses and breathe nice, clean, beautiful fresh air... I think it’s going to be sooner rather than later.” That’s wishful thinking. And the trade-off is unacceptable to most Americans.

But, what will post-coronavirus America look like? Get ready for this one. As Henry Kissinger points out in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed: “The reality is the world will never be the same after the coronavirus.”

A new normal may set in, with continued social distancing in apprehension that the virus will return. Cocktail parties may become Zoom virtual. Increasing numbers of people may work from home. Citizens wearing facemasks and latex gloves when out and about may make us look more like China and Japan or a surrealistic Magritte painting than the America we knew.

Without more clarity, the future seems frighteningly uncertain.

Brandeis famously said that “it is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may…serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

But now it is late in the day. We need to see the result of experimentation, and we need to see it soon. The risk is great, the straits are dire and the lurking questions are: How long will it take to conquer the coronavirus, and what sort of society will it leave behind? 

James D. Zirin, a retired partner of the Chicago-headquartered law firm of Sidley Austin, is the author of the recently published book, “Plaintiff in Chief — A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3,500 Lawsuits.” He is a former assistant United States attorney for the Southern District of New York.