On April 30, CIDRAP published a handy, broad-based scenario guide for what the rest of 2020’s pandemic might look. It broke the future into three scenarios: a “peaks and valleys” scenario, a “Spanish Flu 2 massive wave” scenario, and a “slow burn” scenario — all of which still seem viable right now.
I can’t go into the epidemiology of the three scenarios and how accurate they might be; that’s really someone else’s job. But what I can do as a political risk analyst is tell you how the US is likely to react to each of the three scenarios.
Scenario 1: Peaks and Valleys, localized lockdowns and interruptions, and a potential end of the Trump presidency
So in ‘Peaks and Valleys’, the country keeps having April-like waves of infections and deaths. They do get smaller over time, but that’s not much of a silver lining: time and again, America faces hospital shortages and death spikes.
This scenario means that we are likely to see lockdowns of some kind continue in reaction to waves that overwhelm hospital systems. Unlike the panic of March, it’s not as likely to be national; governors will probably enact lockdowns only as another crushing waves becomes inevitable. Localized travel bans are likely, international travel is difficult (if not because the US is banning some country then because other countries are blocking the US), and places that try to go back to normal clam up with frustrating frequency.
Politically, this isn’t great for the Trump presidency and the GOP: recurrent waves will continue to remind Americans of both the health and economic effects of the pandemic all the way through November. But it’s not the end of their world; the waves may not be big enough, or happening in the swing states, during the critical election months. It remains possible that Trump squeezes through with narrow margins and the GOP lives to fight another day.
Scenario 2: The Spanish Flu 2, another mostly national lockdown, and a likely end of the Trump era
This model assumes that COVID-19 will behave like the Spanish Flu, potentially mutate, and become more dangerous during the typical seasonal flu season. Instead of recurrent April-like waves, we get one, massive crash, starting somewhere in September or October. As the case and body count pick up, the nation panics yet again: it’s the equivalent of a second 9/11 happening in March 2002. National lockdowns go back into effect nearly everywhere as panic drives policy.
This means April 2020 all over again but probably more strict this time, with domestic travel bans a more likely effect and a society more likely to fall in line, at least for a while, to combat the wave. It means whatever tepid economic recovery might have begun over the summer vanishes; it means cloistered daily lifestyles in the spring return with a vengeance. While Americans might be social distance weary, a second wave would overcome those fears, in part because the second wave scenario implicitly assumes the virus has changed into a more deadly variant. Suddenly it’s not the “Boomer Remover” but something that potentially kills children and young people, just as the Spanish Flu did.
It almost certainly dooms the Trump presidency. Rightly or wrong, the White House will be blamed if a second wave like this crashes down just as the election season kicks into high gear. It will be the Financial Crash of 2008 on steroids – and the Crash, recall, not only cemented Obama’s lead over McCain, but gave him a brief supermajority in the Senate. (And this is entirely possible in 2020, even with the current map having so many GOP advantages, should a second wave like this come along).
Scenario 3: The slow burn, the ‘new normal’, and a potential Trump second term
In the ‘slow burn’ scenario, we don’t see another April 2020: we see steady spikes here and there in very localized places with a drip of cases and deaths all the way through the vaccine. There is no panic; people, the economy, and politics adjust to the reality that a killer virus is loose but cannot be quickly defeated.
Lockdowns are incredibly localized; few states, if any, return to stay at home orders. Some cities open and some close for a while in response to waves of small infections. Businesses get used to the idea that they can be interrupted by a sudden spike in cases. In many ways, it resembles life in the 1950s, when polio and measles still ravaged the country and outbreaks could cause local closures but rarely inspired panic or nationwide shutdowns. A tepid economic recovery is possible, especially as the longer this goes on, the more the economy adjusts to it.
This scenario puts the electoral playing field as close as it can be to February 2020 before the pandemic really hit. Deaths continue and cases go on, but they are considered a backdrop of life. Trump’s management of the crisis will be a huge consideration for his reelection, but in this case, he’s more able to spin the situation, and his party more able to push back on accusations of dereliction of duty, than in the other two. He’s certainly not guaranteed a win, but in the slow burn scenario, he at least has a fighting chance.
How will we know which is true? Likely starting in September
By early fall, we’ll have the data, the testing, and the hospital feedback to know which of the three scenarios are true. We may even see a scenario emerge that isn’t covered in the above — with entirely different economic and political consequences. But as we go into the summer, we can consider how much we need to brace for the fall, and whether or not President Trump, who has survived so much, manages to squeak in a second term.