Leah Adelman: Cautious optimism in the face of COVID-19

Monday, May 11, 2020 - 1:40pm

It seems that we are expected to pick one of two ideologies. One is the pessimistic belief that the resolution for COVID-19 is very far off, that classes will be online for years to come and that the goal of social gatherings is just a dream. The other belief is the delusional one that things will soon return to normal, that the reopening states are safe to proceed and masks are an unnecessary precaution. As the news broke each day announcing the state of the world as worse and worse, I subscribed to the pessimistic outlook. I thought optimism was too delusional. However, after a few months of living in COVID-19 America, I’m choosing to take on an optimistic, but cautious perspective.

The conversation about our future with COVID-19 begins with questions of the cure and/or vaccine. A New York Times projection shows that typically the vaccine would be here by 2036, but with many factors working in our favor, it could get it here by August 2021. As a member of the class of 2021, waiting over a year to feel safe in public is not an optimistic outcome. While vaccination within the next year is relatively unlikely, we can remember that it is not necessarily a vaccine that will be required for us to go back to in-person lifestyles. More effective tests, contact tracing and new ways to sanitize are all new technologies that could help us return to a more normal version of our lives sooner than we may think.

It is not in experts’ best interests to be publicly optimistic. When given a global platform, a message of optimism could influence the public to take social distancing precautions less seriously. It may also prevent people from creating contingency plans for when in-person events do need to be canceled for a while longer. The leading experts in interviews and articles are giving us information, but they can also be selective in that information so as to not risk sending the message that COVID-19 is not still a major threat. Because this is a once-in-a-century occurrence, everything the experts say is an estimate to some extent. It’s better for them to err on the side of caution rather than optimism. The leading experts could likely have more optimistic perspectives than they are willing to share with the public.

One reason to lose all hope would be if you believe the U.S. government is too incompetent to recover quickly from this crisis. The way the Trump administration has handled COVID-19, in comparison to other countries, would not give any indication that our nation will recover at the same rate that others may. That being said, the U.S. government tends to be more reactive than proactive. Preventing the crisis through actions like issuing stay-at-home orders, before it has affected the lives of Americans, is, unfortunately, not politically feasible.

It is politically advantageous to be reactive. Preventing the initial spread of COVID-19 was a disaster, costing us ten of thousands of lives. However, I would not use past actions in the COVID-19 crisis to completely discount future capabilities. The pressure of the upcoming election season may be some motivation for the response. That is not to say that we have not been let down tremendously by our government, and if you do not have much faith in our leaders to bring us to recovery, I cannot blame you.

It is nearly impossible to not talk about COVID-19 multiple times a day with our families and friends on video calls. Each time this topic comes up, I end up in a conversation about when we might get to be together again and what this fall may look like. I am choosing a more optimistic view, even though it is not one held by leading experts nor based on our government’s past performance. I urge you to believe there is a place between complete pessimism and delusional optimism.

Leah Adelman can be reached at ladelman@umich.edu