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16 September 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 8:01am

In the US capital, residents are bracing for a long, lonely Covid-19 winter

Scientists predict that infections in Washington, DC, will increase as the weather cools and people take their gatherings indoors. 

By Emily Tamkin

One Sunday in early September, I sat with a friend on a bench in a park known by some as Meridian Hill Park and some as Malcolm X Park.

We were there for about 90 minutes. The grass in front of us was covered with people, sitting in little groups, talking and laughing and enjoying – or trying to – the last weekend of a summer that felt nothing like summer. We wore masks. Some of our fellow park-goers wore them; others did not. It was hard, though, to get too mad at them. We were all outside, in pairs and groups and not mingling, and trying to claim some little bit of normalcy.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we’re trying to do the best we can as safely as we can within this new normal. Because this is the way we live now, and it’s going to be the way we live for a while longer. Cases in Washington, DC, and the surrounding area have plateaued. More than 1,500 people in the region that is Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia are still testing positive daily. People of colour are disproportionately impacted. In August, black residents made up 73 per cent of deaths from Covid-19 in the city, despite making up 47 per cent of the population. White residents, by comparison, make up 45 per cent of the population but 11 per cent of the deaths.

Experts say that case numbers are unlikely to fall further because, after six months of living with coronavirus, citizens will not accept a strict lockdown, and politicians don’t want to enforce more draconian restrictions – we still, somehow, have indoor dining. Scientists predict that infections will increase as the weather cools and people take their gatherings indoors. It seems likely that as cases rise, people will be more careful, and cases will fall as a result, leading people to relax again, and cases to rise – a never-ending cycle.

The test-positivity rate in Washington, DC, has remained at around 3 per cent since June, which is better than the rate in, say, Florida, but worse than the rate in the greater New York area, which was scarred by a brutal spring. It is now September. Coronavirus isn’t getting better, it’s just getting longer.

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It is hard to say that we’re waiting for a second wave, since we never really finished the first, but we can expect a cycle of rising and falling infections until a vaccine is created, whenever that is. We’ll learn how the pandemic impacts a presidential election, particularly when the incumbent tries to convince people of unproven fraud and refuses to say that he’ll accept the results. We’ll probably learn what it’s like to not spend Thanksgiving or the holidays with our families, or at least to not be able to do so safely.

Eventually we’ll learn how many Americans will lose their lives to the virus. It’s only been six months and already 200,000 are dead. 

Read the rest of the “Postcards from Planet Covid” series here

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This article appears in the 16 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid