The tragedy of two failing superpowers

To address the pandemic, China and the US must not only function. They must function together

Martin Wolf

© James Ferguson

History accelerates in crises. This pandemic may not itself transform the world, but it can accelerate changes already under way. One ongoing change has been in the relationship between China, the rising superpower, and the US, the incumbent.

Being a superpower is not just about brute strength, it is also about being seen as a competent and decent leader. After victories in the second world war and the cold war, the US was such a leader. Despite rising economic strength, China is not. But times can change. The coronavirus may accelerate the process.

Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat, has written a characteristically provocative book on the struggle for primacy between the two superpowers under the provocative title Has China Won?

The answer, he suggests, is not yet. But it might. This is not just because of its scale, but also because of American mistakes, including false perceptions of Chinese reality. Perhaps the most important conclusion to draw from his analysis is that global influence derives mainly from one’s own choices.

China and the US have each made big mistakes. But the US failure to create widely shared prosperity at home, and its bellicosity abroad, are proving crippling. The dismal presidency of a malevolent incompetent is one result.

Two side by side bubble charts showing the Deaths per million, by province and state for the US and China

Now has come the virus, an event not considered in this book. It casts a harsh light on the competence and decency of the superpowers. It has done the same on EU solidarity (or its absence), the effectiveness of states, the vulnerability of finance and the capacity for global co-operation.

In all this, the performance of the US and China is of pre-eminent importance. So what have we learnt?

The novel coronavirus, which is causing such social and economic havoc, emerged in China’s Hubei province. There seems little doubt about this. The US National Institutes of Health state that it originated in bats. Irresponsibly and tragically, the local authorities suppressed news of the infection, causing a delay of at least three weeks in the response.

That let the virus spread across the world. Thereafter, however, the Chinese state took brutal action, bringing the disease under control in Hubei and halting its spread across China.

Relative to population, China’s mortality rate has been very low. Both the initial suppression of bad news and the scale of the response are characteristics of a repressive, yet effective, state. (See charts.)

Total since 100th case for the five highest countries

Highest countries showing cases per million, since 100th case

Effective response to the disease will have had a big economic cost in China. But the state encouraged employers to retain their employees, while also providing support to enterprises to do so. The official urban unemployment rate has risen very little. The largest group of victims has, as usual, been migrant labour. China can now reopen the economy, though there is a risk of a second wave of the disease as it does so.

The US has had its own forms of denial, emanating shamefully from President Donald Trump himself, together with huge failures in ramping up testing and providing equipment, as has the UK. Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs has written devastatingly of the ill will and ineffectiveness on display. Infections are spreading at fearful speed across the country. It could get worse. Italy and Spain show how much worse. Yet the US has the additional drawback of a defective health system.

The US, like other high-income countries, has now responded with “social distancing”, although Mr Trump has only reluctantly extended it, and a fiscal response, worth $2tn. Roman Frydman of New York University, argues that this is neither big enough, given the scale of the American economy, nor well-focused: only a 20th of this sum is going to hospitals, while state and local governments are short-changed. Worst of all, argues veteran anti-corruption campaigner, Frank Vogl, is a $500bn fund for big corporations likely to be under Mr Trump’s unsupervised control, which is contrary to the will of Congress.

Line chart showing total deaths  for the highest countries

Lines chart: Deaths per million for the highest six countries

The fundamental American principles of democracy and individual freedom remain attractive to many around the world, despite the global rise of populist autocracy. The vigour of its private economy may yet save us all. But today the US is losing its reputation for elementary competence, already badly battered by its long list of futile wars and the financial crisis of 2007-09.

Parts of government, notably the Federal Reserve, remain effective for now, though who knows what would happen in a second Trump term? But the fundamental capability of the often despised “administrative state” — the bulwark of any complex urban civilisation — really matters. At these times of crisis, its absence is lethal. A government at war with science and its own machinery is now very visible to all.

For those of us who believe in liberal democracy, these US failures hurt: they give credence to the idea that autocracy works better. But the death of decency and competence in core western governments matters beyond even this. The arrival of the pandemic is a global moral challenge.

It is necessary to tackle the spread of disease, manage financial shocks, stabilise the economy and help the weak. The US has to play a big part. There remains no alternative to its role.

Line chart: Cumulative number of deaths, by numberof days since 10th deathShowing US states and selected subnational regions in Italy, Spain, China, France, S Korea and UK

We have been reminded that no man is an island in a pandemic. As Gordon Brown argues: “Out of this crisis must come reforms to the international architecture and a whole new level of global co-operation.”

If this is to happen, some states must lead. Any global order rests on co-operation among powerful states. China and the US must not only function.

They must function together, recognising the many interests they share, while tolerating their deep differences.If not us, who?

And if not now, when?

Coronavirus risks the return of currency wars

US monetary easing should be done with Japan and the eurozone and not to them

Robin Harding

Corona Currency virus
© James Ferguson

The world has had more than a decade since the 2008 financial crisis to prepare for another global downturn. It has not used that time well. Now a large shock has arrived, in the form of the coronavirus outbreak, at a moment when the world’s largest economies are divided by trade disputes. An uncoordinated policy response that prolongs economic weakness and triggers a new round of currency wars is a real danger.

Much is still unknown about the disease known as Covid-19. What is known, however, suggests the only effective response once it gets a foothold is an all-out quarantine effort like China’s and now Italy’s. The inevitable result is a big global economic shock. Spread of the disease, including in the US, contributed to a dramatic fall in global stock prices and bond yields this week.

In an ideal world, every central bank would confront this challenge with a healthy level of inflation and interest rates above 5 per cent. If Covid-19 hit domestic demand, they would cut rates as needed. Governments would provide targeted fiscal help. There might be some currency swings, depending on which countries were worst affected, but there would be little cause for global economic tension.

Sadly, we are not in such a situation. In large parts of the rich world, notably the eurozone and Japan, interest rates are below zero and use of other easing tools such as asset purchases is close to the limit. In the US, policy interest rates began this crisis in a range of 1.5 to 1.75 per cent but have already been cut by 50 basis points. Countries such as Mexico, with interest rates of 7 per cent, and Russia at 6 per cent have more room for manoeuvre.

This asymmetry is a recipe for what the former Brazilian finance minister Guido Mantega has called “currency wars”: not outright currency manipulation in pursuit of competitive advantage, but divergences in monetary policy that lead to sharp foreign exchange movements, and threats of retaliation by those who lose out.

If the US Federal Reserve cuts rates when the European Central Bank and Bank of Japan cannot follow, the dollar is likely to weaken against the euro and the yen. Last week’s Fed emergency cut, and the subsequent flight from risky assets, led the yen to hit ¥101 against the dollar at one point. Levels around ¥100 hurt Japan’s exports and have prompted threats of currency intervention in the past. The yen could easily strengthen further if the US cuts rates to zero. The euro is in the same boat.

The Fed’s space to cut further is also limited, and while the dollar may be falling against the yen, it is rising against the rouble, the Mexican peso, the Indian rupee and other currencies, especially those affected by Saudi Arabia’s decision to pump more oil and the resulting slump in oil prices.

At least for now, it seems the coronavirus crisis is prompting a flight to safety in the US, rather than capital outflows to higher yielding emerging markets, as happened in 2010 when Mr Mantega gave his warning.

The crucial question is what US President Donald Trump will make of it all, in an election year with the American economy under pressure. Will he tolerate currency depreciation across a swath of US trading partners? It does not seem in character. Mr Trump could well resort to currency intervention or punitive tariffsat some stage during 2020 if he thought US trading partners were gaining an advantage. Global economic co-operation is already fragile; either of those two moves would fracture it altogether.

With monetary policy constrained, the alternative is fiscal policy. But countries also differ in their willingness to run deficits. The eurozone, and Germany in particular, is usually reluctant to spend more. Fiscal policy, therefore, is also rife with potential for international tension. Imagine that the UK mounts a large fiscal stimulus in response to the coronavirus but the EU does not. European exports might benefit from demand in Britain, and Brexit trade negotiations that are already difficult would become that much harder.

The only answer is global co-operation. Japan and the eurozone may not be able to cut their interest rates to match the Fed, but US easing should be done with them and not to them. Jay Powell, the Fed chairman, worked hard to liaise with G7 central banks before his rate cut last week.

Even if his efforts cannot result in co-ordinated global rate cuts, it is still crucial that central bank unity is maintained. The Fed should scale up currency swap lines with other central banks to help them meet demand for dollars if local liquidity runs short.

The G20 will need to step up, too. It should urge its members to launch targeted fiscal stimulus, providing cash to workers who cannot earn because their children have been sent home as schools close, and to businesses in danger of insolvency due to a sudden loss of demand. The more each country acts to support its own economy, rather than seeking to export its way out of trouble by tapping demand in other nations, the less friction there will be.

While the medical picture is darkening, there is still some cause for economic hope. Unlike the 2008 subprime crisis, the shock is not coming from the financial sector, so it is less destabilising, and there is more chance of a quick bounce back. But there is only one way to achieve that: in the economy, as in the direct fight against the disease, the world must work together.

Why are Markets Collapsing? How Bad Will COVID-19 Really Be?

Markets are collapsing because investors hate uncertainty. Will COVID-19 be as bad as last year’s flu? Will it be 10 times as bad? No one knows. But markets are acting as if we are going to encounter the worst-case scenario, notes Eric K. Clemons in this opinion piece.

Clemons is a professor of operations, information and decisions at Wharton. Analyzing four possible scenarios that the pandemic’s evolution could take in the future, Clemons argues that the market reaction is more extreme than any of the likely possible futures would justify. The markets are reacting to uncertainty rather than to expectations, he writes.

Why are the markets collapsing? Why is it impossible to find hand sanitizer in the U.S.? Why are my Chinese friends sympathetically offering to ship me anti-viral face masks, since they have learned that panic buying has eliminated supplies in the West? Are the markets over-reacting? Is the panic justified?

Let’s review what we know and what we don’t know about COVID-19, and let’s approach the risks rationally.

Public-health officials, global risk management experts, and others have been warning about a new Plague, a global pandemic, for decades. Higher population densities, the ease of global travel and super-bug strains of centuries-old killers that are resistant to all known antibiotics are all factors.

We have been warned of a global plague of biblical proportions, something with Pestilence, Famine and Death, with at least three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Relax. This is not that Plague.

Markets are collapsing because investors hate uncertainty.

Will COVID-19 be as bad as last year’s flu? Will it be five times as bad as last year’s flu? Will it be 10 times as bad? No one knows. But there is no reason for markets to react as if it will be 100 times or 1,000 times worse.

The markets are over-reacting.

They are acting as if we are going to encoun­ter the worst-case scenario. Market reaction is much more extreme than any of the likely scenar­ios would justify. The markets are not reacting to expectations. They are react­ing to uncertainty.

What We Know – and Don’t Know

Let’s reduce that uncertainty. Let’s review what we all know, and what none of us knows.

COVID-19 is a new coronavirus, like the common cold and the flu. Since it’s a new coronavirus it was initially named simply Novel Coronavirus. Although COVID-19 sounds scarier than Novel, like some­thing out of a horror novel, this is not Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain or Kurt Vonnegut’s Ice Nine. Even in a worst-case scenario, in which we all get sick, we are not all going to die.

We know a lot about coronaviruses because they are not new. They’ve been with us for centu­ries. Many of them are zoonotic, which means they mutated and jumped to humans from animals. That’s why we deal with Swine Flu and Avian Flu; their initial hosts were domestic livestock.
We know COVID-19 has achieved permanence. The virus is established globally. Enough people have the virus in enough locations to ensure that it is not going to vanish on its own. It can no longer be contained.

Mutation is a critical aspect of most coronaviruses. That’s why we have no vaccine against the common cold, and why we never develop immunity to the common cold no matter how many times we catch colds. Every season’s cold virus is just different enough to ensure that neither last year’s immunity nor last year’s vaccine would offer any protection.

The mutation rate in the flu is lower. That’s why we can develop vaccines and why we have some immunity to future strains of the flu after we have contracted the flu in previous seasons. We don’t know how extreme COVID-19 mutation will be.

The markets are over-reacting. They are acting as if we are going to encoun­ter the worst-case scenario.

Because of mutation, lethality also varies. Let’s assume that this year’s COVID-19 is about aver­age for future strains. This year’s strain is about four times as lethal as an average flu season, but at present we have no residual immunity from infection in previous years.

That probably will change, and we probably will develop some residual immunity that will be helpful in future years. I’m going to assume that once COVID-19 is fully established on average it will be about as lethal as the flu, but I’m guess­ing. We don’t know how lethal COVID-19 will be.

Possible Futures

Scenario analysis allows us to combine what we know and what we don’t know to generate a set of all possible futures. We may have high or low lethality and high or low mutation rates.

This yields four scenarios.

Three of these combinations are delightfully, reassuringly, boringly familiar.

Still Normal: What Was All the Fuss About? — Low mutation rates mean that we can devel­op a vaccine. Low lethality means that while the vaccine would be helpful, the risk to unvaccinated individuals is low. This would be the case if in the future COVID-19 is on average less lethal than this year and is also more stable than the common cold. There is nothing to worry about. This is shown in a dark and reassuring green.

Take Two Aspirin and Call Me in the Morning — High mutation rates means that we cannot really develop a vaccine, but low lethality means that we don’t really need to worry very much.

In steady state COVID-19 will turn out to be a minor annoyance, like the common cold. High-risk individuals like asthmatics would need to take precautions, but for most people there is almost nothing to worry about.

This is shown in a lighter but still reassuring green.

Lessons from Edward Jenner: We Eliminated Smallpox — Low mutation rates indicate that we can develop a vaccine. High lethality means that we really need the vaccine. It is inevitable that we will develop this vaccine. Smallpox was a lethal scourge for centu­ries.

Childhood polio was a source of terror until the 1950s. Jenner discovered vaccina­tion in 1796.

Jonas Salk’s vaccination against polio was approved in 1955. Both smallpox and polio have virtually been eliminated in the developed world. This scenario is no differ­ent. We will develop a vaccine.

The world will return to normal. Again, this is shown in a lighter but still reassuring green.

So, really, the only combination we would need to worry about is high mutation and high lethal­ity. Fortunately, this is the least likely of the four combinations. The “objective” of a virus, if a strand of DNA or RNA could be said to have an objective, is to produce as many copies of itself as possible.

If a virus is too lethal, it kills its hosts too quickly and it doesn’t infect enough people for optimal virus reproduction. Over time, natural selection usually reduces the lethality of a virus or any other parasite. Quite simply, there is an optimal level of lethality that allows maximum reproduction and transmission of the virus.

Crudely speaking, that’s why long-term parasites like the common cold, another coronavirus, is so much more prevalent than Ebola, and while remaining deadly even Ebola’s kill rate and kill speed have declined. Still, waiting for natural selection to tame a virus is not an optimal strategy for the hosts.

If we find ourselves dealing with high lethality and high mutation rates for an extended period, soci­ety would need to develop an effective response. It is not certain that we can do so.

If we are spectacularly unlucky, COVID-19 will turn out to be lethal with a high mutation rate.

While this scenario is not the most likely, it is the most critical. For that reason, I divide it into two sub-scenarios, based on the effectiveness of societies’ responses.

1. Brave New World: Remember, this scenario assumes lethality high enough to require a vaccine and mutation rates high enough to make a vaccine unlikely. It likewise assumes that this condition continues for an extended period. In this scenario we assume that technical and social engineering changes provide an effective response. White-collar professions attain a high degree of virtualization. Executives and their staffs telecommute.

Faculty and their students engage in distance learning. Farm work continues largely unchanged. Blue-collar workers mostly are replaced by increasingly intense levels of automation, and social programs are developed to avoid total devasta­tion of low-income populations.

Medical treatment for all COVID-19 patients becomes the law of the land throughout the developed world, if for no other reason than the wealthier segments of the population do not want to risk contamina­tion from untreated members of the lower-income segments of the popula­tion. The scenario is shown in a cautionary amber.

Successful transition into the Brave New World scenario is by no means certain. Could countries with highly skewed income distribution like Brazil and India afford to support their desperately poor urban slums? Would they choose to do so? Would the most disadvantaged populations in the world,

Bangladeshis and the residents of Sub-Saharan Africa, perish in vast numbers while other parts of the world escape relatively unscathed? Mass migrations and floods of refugees would be unprecedented; think in terms of half the world’s population under­taking migrations on a level comparable to the Irish migrations during the Potato Famine of the late 1840s, while the other half of the world experiences the worst economic crisis in a century.

Responses would be brutal, and pogroms would be universal. Anyone who was for­eign, or who even was other, would be seen as both as a potential source of disease and as a potential economic burden.

This scenario might be unstable, and might inevitably transition into another, even worse scenario.

2. Pale Horseman: I am Death: Once again, this scenario assumes lethality high enough to require a vaccine and mutation rates high enough to make a vaccine unlikely. How­ever, it also assumes that it is impossible to develop an effective response.

Class war­fare erupts between wealthy and impoverished populations throughout the developing world. Mass migration and ethnic warfare erupts between the Third World and the more fortunate segments of the population. Lack of effective leadership does not save the wealthy nations of the West.

This is brutal, and is shown as a dangerous red.

What is our final assessment?

The markets are reacting as if the most likely scenario — indeed the inevitable scenario — is Pale Horseman: I am Death. 

This actually is the least likely scenario. It assumes rapidly mutating virus with continued high lethality for an extended period, which really is something out of a science fiction novel.

The markets are over-reacting.

Most Likely Scenario

Unfortunately, the most likely scenario is a more extreme version of Take Two Aspirin and Call Me in the Morning. COVID-19 will be like the common cold, only worse. We are all going to have to adapt to increased socially responsible behavior by individuals who believe themselves to be sick.

We are going to require increased socially responsible behavior from employers, granting greater numbers of sick days and provide incentives for sick employees to stay home until they are no longer contagious, instead of returning as soon as they are able to perform adequate­ly at work.

This will require a more generous governmental response, with assurances that employees will not suffer financial losses taking sick leave because they are ill, or because family members are ill, or because they have been exposed to the virus.

This would be expensive for business and would require governmental support for businesses that are increasingly paying absent workers. And we are going to require increased public health spending, so that every­one, insured or not, legal resident or not, can have safe and anonymous testing for COVID-19.

Any attempt to limit testing so that only insured legal residents could be tested would make the virus impossible to control. Likewise, any attempt to limit confidential and anonymous testing, for any reason, will make the virus impossible to control. We learned this from previous public health emergencies, like the initial spread of HIV/AIDS.

Returning to the markets, I believe that the markets have over-reacted and that they will recov­er. If you are light in equities now or have available cash, it might be a reasonable time to invest. But you need to be patient, since recovery will not be immediate. Do not invest money you will need soon.

And what about life in general, beyond your investment strategy?

Be prepared for inconven­ience, for disruptions in travel plans, and changes at work.

Don’t panic. And remember to wash your hands.

Quarantine and the Supply Chain

By: George Friedman

The global medical community appears to have devised a strategy for mitigating the coronavirus that depends largely on quarantine, or limiting contact among the infected and potentially infected, thereby limiting the virus’ spread.

No one expects this strategy to eliminate the virus, of course.

The hope is to keep it at bay long enough for it to fade away on its own or, as many experts believe, die in the more hostile conditions of warmer weather. In the meantime, it’s possible that scientists will develop more effective treatment for the disease it causes.

This is all speculative.

What we know for sure is that the world’s governments are kicking the can down the road, hoping that later is better than now. It’s not an irrational plan, but it does come with economic costs, not the least of which involve supply chains. What we need to survive must travel from where it’s made to our homes, and every step along the chain is at risk of breaking down.

For our purposes, there are three indispensable supply chains: food, pharmaceuticals and energy.

The need for food is obvious. The inability to obtain pharmaceuticals for pre-existing medical conditions could kill more people than the coronavirus itself. Electricity is essential to refrigerate foods and possibly pharmaceuticals, allow information to flow, and drive facilities needed for the supply chain.

Gasoline must be delivered if the trucks that distribute food and pharmaceuticals are to run.

There are undoubted other supply chains we have missed, but these are the essentials to get us through until the weather turns.

When my wife and I shop for groceries, we order online so that it is ready for pickup when we get to the store.

Two weeks ago, we were able to place an order for same-day pickup. We ordered a two-week supply since we thought we’d be traveling a bit and wanted to make sure we had plenty of supplies when we returned home. (I saw this coming and my wife thought me mad. Please note I finally got one right.)

Last week, however, we ordered online for some additional supplies, and there was a three-day wait.

On Sunday, we tried again, and the earliest we could pick it up was in eight days.

We checked with Amazon, the king of supply chains, and their wait on some basic food and household items was anywhere from five to 10 days.

Some items were completely unavailable.

This means there are people who are just beginning to stock up who can’t because the initial surge in demand has overwhelmed supermarket stocks and has overloaded the supply. Warehouses undoubtedly have substantial resupply, and their sources – food packagers and the like – are also able to obtain food from producers.

The food supply chain is robust, but we have seen a simple breakdown due to demand that may have some impact in the next few days.

But the problem is that the food supply chain and social distancing, not to mention quarantine, run against each other. No matter how automated it has become, it is staffed by people who deliver products to people. Warehouses still employ human workers. Truckers and loaders go from one node in the supply to the next. Stockers and cashiers touch food packaging.

The list goes on. It is not that the quarantine is ineffective; it’s that it runs counter to the principles of its intent.

There is a social cost in all this too. Poor people cannot buy three weeks of food at a time. And the entire picture is complicated by the whims of workers, who may decide that they need their wages to survive or may determine it is safer to forego their jobs. The workforce will contract, possibly at all levels.

These all involve the availability of workers who choose not to quarantine in spite of the risk to themselves and their families, a rational structure of demand from an economically variegated society, and the inevitable rage that builds under pressure.

The pharmaceutical industry has these problems too, plus the breakdown of the system would be disastrous. The maintenance of power plants involves numerous people, more when there is a problem.

It requires the delivery of fuel along pipelines that must be maintained, and storage and production facilities. (This is to say nothing of the upkeep of water purification plants, pumping stations and all other essential services.)

My point is two-fold. First, a total quarantine is impossible, and second, the more aggressive the quarantine is, the more pressure it puts on vulnerable supply chains that sustain life. The systems require staff, and the staff cannot avoid contact with the public.

This is not to say that the quarantine is not a reasonable solution. Under the circumstances, it is the only reasonable solution. It may even be as effective with the number of essential workers breaking.

But it is important to bear in mind that supply chains, no matter how robust, can break, and it takes armies of workers to maintain them. The cycle that is envisioned by the quarantine confronts the cycle that maintains the supply chain.

The question is the math of the quarantine. To what degree does the workforce maintaining these and other supply chains – and their end-users – change the math.

I assume that has been calculated and that it is understood that these supply chains cannot be allowed to break and to some extent will sustain the virus’ spread.

Coronavirus Live Updates: U.N. Warns of Global Instability and Conflict

President Trump told of “hard days that lie ahead” as his top scientific advisers released models predicting that the U.S. death toll would be 100,000 to 240,000. Governors complained about chaos in obtaining critical supplies.


The S&P 500 fell nearly 4 percent in early trading, extending its losses from March — with a 12.5 percent drop — the worst month for stocks since 2008.


Here’s what you need to know:

- Americans are told to brace for “very, very painful” period, and U.N. says virus threatens global stability.

- Trump confronts a new reality before an expected wave of disease and death.

- Wall Street tumbles as economic projections worsen.

- Governors rail against chaos in obtaining vital supplies, and the N.Y. crisis deepens.

- U.N. chief says the virus poses gravest threat to humanity since World War II.

- Global free-for-all to find masks creates a shadowy trade.

- In the age of coronavirus, coughing can be a crime.

Triage tents outside Mount Sinai Hospital in New York on Tuesday.
Triage tents outside Mount Sinai Hospital in New York on Tuesday.Credit...Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

Americans are told to brace for “very, very painful” period, and U.N. says virus threatens global stability.

The United Nations warned on Wednesday that the unfolding battle against the coronavirus would lead to “enhanced instability, enhanced unrest, and enhanced conflict.”

As Americans steeled themselves for what President Trump said would be a “very, very painful two weeks,” the scale of the economic, political and societal fallout around the world came into ever greater focus.

“We are facing a global health crisis unlike any in the 75-year history of the United Nations — one that is killing people, spreading human suffering and upending people’s lives,” the United Nations declared in a report calling for global solidarity in the fight.

“This is much more than a health crisis,” the report added. “The coronavirus is attacking societies at their core.”

With more than 30,000 dead across Europe and the virus still spreading ferociously, millions across the continent resigned themselves to hunkering down for weeks more, and possibly months.

Britain, France and Spain all experienced their highest death tolls on Tuesday.

At the White House, the scientists charged with leading the battle against the virus made it clear that there were two distinctly different campaigns underway in the United States.

One was taking place in the New York metropolitan region, where more than half of the nation’s cases have been detected — the death toll in New York City alone surged past 1,000. More than 2,000 nurses, 500 paramedics and emergency medical technicians, as well as 250 ambulances from across the country, were converging on the city, joining the Navy and the National Guard in assisting the region’s front-line medical workers.

Adding to the warlike atmosphere, the home of the U.S. Open tennis championship in Queens was being turned into a triage center, and hospital tents were being set up in Central Park.

Dr. Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the nation’s coronavirus response, pointed to the exponential growth of cases in New York and parts of New Jersey as just the thing that national officials were trying to prevent in other parts of the country.

The charts — with multicolor lines representing the virus in each of the 50 states — looked like the maps used to track hurricanes. And as with the weather, there is a good deal of uncertainty in the predictions.

Dr. Birx said that there had been worrying outbreaks in other metropolitan regions, including Detroit and Miami, but that the second broad campaign at the moment was to keep the lines tracking the virus in the rest of the country from looking like those in New York and New Jersey.

The best tool at the government’s disposal, she said, remained strict adherence to social distancing guidelines.

Even if those guidelines are followed perfectly, officials said, the estimated death toll in the United States is 100,000 to 240,000 deaths.

Trump confronts a new reality before an expected wave of disease and death. 
President Trump at the White House on Tuesday for a news briefing about the coronavirus.
President Trump at the White House on Tuesday for a news briefing about the coronavirus.Credit...Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Five weeks ago, when there were 60 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States, President Trump expressed little alarm. “This is a flu,” he said. “This is like a flu.” He was still likening it to an ordinary flu as late as Friday.

By Tuesday, however, with more than 187,000 recorded cases in the United States and more Americans having been killed by the virus than by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the president’s assessment had rather drastically changed. “It’s not the flu,” he said. “It’s vicious.”

The grim-faced president who appeared in the White House briefing room for more than two hours on Tuesday evening beside charts showing death projections of hellacious proportions was coming to grips with a reality he had long refused to accept. At a minimum, the charts predicted that 100,000 to 240,000 Americans would die — and only if the nation abided by stringent social restrictions that would choke the economy and impoverish millions.

A crisis that Mr. Trump had repeatedly asserted was “under control” and hoped would “miraculously” disappear has come to consume his presidency, presenting him with a challenge that he seems only now to be seeing more clearly.

The numbers publicly outlined on Tuesday had forced him over the weekend to reverse his plan to reopen the country by Easter, but they were hardly new or surprising. Experts have been warning of a possibility like this for weeks. But more than ever before, Mr. Trump seemed to acknowledge them.

“I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead,” the president said, the starkest such effort he has made to prepare the country for the expected wave of disease and death. “We’re going to go through a very tough two weeks.”

Wall Street tumbles as economic projections worsen.

Outside the New York Stock Exchange last week.
Outside the New York Stock Exchange last week.Credit...Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Stocks on Wall Street fell sharply on Wednesday, following a slump in global markets, as investors faced new projections of the potential scale and economic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic.

The S&P 500 fell nearly 4 percent in early trading, extending its losses from March — with a 12.5 percent drop — the worst month for stocks since 2008.

Though the panic-driven, stomach-churning market volatility of recent weeks had subsided in recent days, numerous signs point to dire prospects for the world economy as the pandemic continues its spread. President Trump said at a news conference on Tuesday that the United States would face a “very, very painful two weeks,” and government scientists projected that the outbreak could kill up to 240,000 people in the country. And on Wednesday, the United Nations warned of “enhanced instability, enhanced unrest and enhanced conflict.”

Economic readings continued to worsen. On Wednesday, a monthly measure of factory activity in Europe collapsed to its lowest level since at least 2012, while data showed that Japan’s factory activity had slowed to its lowest rate in a decade. Investors will get more data on the job market in the United States later this week, with the government reporting weekly jobless claims on Thursday and the unemployment rate on Friday.

Governors rail against chaos in obtaining vital supplies, and the N.Y. crisis deepens.

U.S. soldiers putting together a field hospital at an events center in Seattle on Tuesday.
U.S. soldiers putting together a field hospital at an events center in Seattle on Tuesday.Credit...Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

A chorus of governors from across the political spectrum publicly challenged the Trump administration’s assertion that the United States is well stocked and well prepared to test people for the coronavirus and care for the sickest patients.

In many cases, the governors said, the country’s patchwork approach had left them bidding against one another for supplies.

Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican, said on Tuesday that his state was “flying blind” in the fight against the coronavirus because officials did not have enough tests. When asked during an NPR interview about President Trump’s comments suggesting that a chronic lack of test kits was no longer a problem in the United States, Mr. Hogan did not mince words: “Yeah, that’s just not true.”

Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut, a Democrat, said on Tuesday that it was “disturbing” to learn that a national stockpile of medical supplies was running empty.

“We are on our own,” he said.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York — whose younger brother, Chris Cuomo, a CNN anchor, has tested positive for the virus — likened the conflicts to “being on eBay with 50 other states, bidding on a ventilator.”

The crisis has gripped the state with stunning speed. Thirty days ago, there was one detected case in New York City. By April 1, there were more than 40,000 infections, and 1,096 deaths from the virus.

Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that the numbers of cases and hospitalizations were expected to continue rising rapidly. The city’s need for equipment and medical workers remained vast and immediate, he said.

“This coming Sunday, April 5, is a demarcation line,” Mr. de Blasio said, zeroing in again on what he has called a critical date. “This is the point at which we must be prepared for next week when we expect a huge increase in the number of cases.”

U.N. chief says the virus poses gravest threat to humanity since World War II.

Locked-down residents in Johannesburg last week.
Locked-down residents in Johannesburg last week.Credit...Marco Longari/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The International Monetary Fund has declared that the world economy has now entered a recession and recovery is unlikely until 2021. As many as 25 million jobs could simply disappear and the world could lose some $3.4 trillion in labor income. More than 1.5 billion students are currently out of school or university, representing 87 percent of the world’s children and young people, and about 60 million teachers are no longer in the classroom.

That is just a sampling of the radical ways the virus and the fight to slow its spread are reshaping the world, according to a United Nations report.

“Covid-19 is the greatest test that we have faced together since the formation of the United Nations,” António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, said on Wednesday.

The report stated, “This is the moment to dismantle trade barriers, maintain open trade, and re-establish supply chains.”

“Tariff and nontariff measures, as well as export bans, especially those imposed on medicinal and related products, would slow countries’ action to contain the virus,” the study added. “Import taxes or restrictions on medical supplies need to be waived.”

The report called for “a large-scale, coordinated and comprehensive multilateral response amounting to at least 10 percent of global G.D.P.”

As the virus swept around the world, the first reaction of many nations was to retreat within their own borders, institute travel restrictions and nationalize the fight against the virus.

But the United Nations said that in this global fight, a global approach was needed.

And it is essential that developed countries immediately assist those less developed to bolster their health systems, the report found. Otherwise, the world faces the nightmare of the disease spreading like wildfire in the Global South, according to the report, with “millions of deaths and the prospect of the disease re-emerging where it was previously suppressed.

Global free-for-all to find masks creates a shadowy trade.

Producing face masks for export at a factory in Lianyungang, in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu, last month.
Producing face masks for export at a factory in Lianyungang, in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu, last month.Credit...Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Global desperation to protect front-line medical workers battling the coronavirus epidemic has spurred a mad international scramble for masks and other protective gear. Governments, hospital chains, clinics and entrepreneurs are scouring the world for personal protection equipment they can buy or sell — and a new type of trader has sprung up to make that happen.

The market has become a series of hasty deals in bars, sudden calls to corporate jet pilots and fast-moving wire transfers among bank accounts in Hong Kong, the United States, Europe and the Caribbean.

The stakes are high, and so are the prices. Wholesale costs for N95 respirators, a crucial type of mask for protecting medical workers, have quintupled. Trans-Pacific airfreight charges have tripled.

“It’s a global free-for-all, trying to get capacity,” said Eric Jantzen, the vice president for North America at Vertis Aviation, an aircraft and air cargo brokerage based in Zurich. “And the prices reflect that.”

The hurdles keep rising. On Tuesday, after complaints from Europe about shoddy Chinese masks and ineffective test kits, China’s Ministry of Commerce ordered manufacturers to provide further assurances that their products met standards.

World leaders are moving to get supplies, but they are still grappling with the vast scope of the problem.

China vacuumed up a big share of global supplies after the outbreak emerged in January. It imported two billion masks in a five-week period starting then. Now, China has become a major part of the solution. Already a giant in mask manufacturing, it has ramped up production to nearly 12 times its earlier level of 10 million a day.

In the age of coronavirus, coughing can be a crime.

Lining up for food coupons in Barcelona, Spain, on Monday.
Lining up for food coupons in Barcelona, Spain, on Monday.Credit...Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

A month ago, a cough was just a cough. Now, in the anxious era of coronavirus, a cough can be a crime.

Coughing that is directed at others is increasingly being treated as a type of assault in Europe and the United States. And in some cases, like when health workers or emergency medical workers are targeted, it can now be classified in some places as an act of terrorism.

George Falcone, a 50-year-old New Jersey man, was charged with making a terroristic threat after he intentionally coughed near a supermarket employee and told her he had the coronavirus. Margaret Cirko, 35, was arrested in Hanover, Pa., when she intentionally coughed and spat at a supermarket’s fresh produce after she said she was sick — the charges against her included two counts of terrorist threats and one count of threatening to use a “biological agent,” the Hanover Township Police Department said in a statement last week.

The police in Spain have in the past weeks arrested people for coughing at supermarket workers and at members of the public, and the authorities in Greece have taken similar steps against people accused of spitting at police officers, according to local media reports. In Britain, common assault charges have been leveled against people accused of coughing intentionally at others.

The Crown Prosecution Service in Britain said that those found guilty of coughing to threaten emergency workers, specifically while claiming to have Covid-19, could face 12 months in prison.

Greater Manchester Police, a force servicing an area in northwestern England, charged a 33-year-old man with assault after he coughed at a police officer last week, and the force said it had also charged a 14-year-old boy with assault after he coughed and shouted “coronavirus” at a 66-year-old woman on March 17.

Warrington Police, another force in northwestern England, wrote on Twitter on Saturday that a group of teenagers who had coughed at health workers would be prosecuted, as would their parents.

Max Hill, the director of public prosecutions in Britain, said in a statement last week that he was “appalled” by reports of people claiming to have coronavirus and intentionally coughing on emergency and other key workers.

“Let me be very clear: This is a crime and needs to stop,” he said.

Covid-19 is changing how the world does science.

Working on potentially infected patient samples at the Pasteur Institute in Paris last month.
Working on potentially infected patient samples at the Pasteur Institute in Paris last month.Credit...Francois Mori/Associated Press

While political leaders have locked their borders, scientists have been shattering theirs, creating a global collaboration unlike any in history. Never before, researchers say, have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency. Nearly all research, other than anything related to coronavirus, has ground to a halt.

Normal imperatives like academic credit have been set aside. Online repositories make studies available months ahead of journals. Researchers have identified and shared hundreds of viral genome sequences. More than 200 clinical trials have been started, bringing together hospitals and laboratories around the globe.

On a recent morning, for example, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh discovered that a ferret exposed to Covid-19 particles had developed a high fever — a potential advance toward animal vaccine testing. Under ordinary circumstances, they would have started work on an academic journal article.

“But you know what? There is going to be plenty of time to get papers published,” said Paul Duprex, a virologist leading the university’s vaccine research. Within two hours, he said, he had shared the findings with scientists around the world on a World Health Organization conference call. “It is pretty cool, right? You cut the crap, for lack of a better word, and you get to be part of a global enterprise.”

Dr. Duprex’s lab in Pittsburgh is collaborating with the Pasteur Institute in Paris and the Austrian drug company Themis Bioscience. The consortium has received funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, a Norway-based organization financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a group of governments, and is in talks with the Serum Institute of India, one of the largest vaccine manufacturers in the world.

When basic errands feel fraught, we’re here to help.

Laundry, grocery shopping, even walking the dog is fraught with challenges these days. The key to accomplish any essential task is a little preparation, levelheaded thinking and a lot of hand washing before and after. (A few anti-bacterial wipes can’t hurt either.)

Coronavirus has ended the screen-time debate and the screens have won.

An online fellowship hour with parishioners using Zoom in Westport, Conn., last month. 
An online fellowship hour with parishioners using Zoom in Westport, Conn., last month. Credit...Dave Sanders for The New York Times

Nellie Bowles, who covers tech and internet culture from San Francisco for The New York Times, wrote about her losing battle with screens.

Before the coronavirus, there was something I used to worry about. It was called screen time. Perhaps you remember it.

I thought about it. I wrote about it. A lot. I would try different digital detoxes as if they were fad diets, each working for a week or two before I’d be back on that smooth glowing glass.

Now I have thrown off the shackles of screen-time guilt. My television is on. My computer is open. My phone is unlocked, glittering. I want to be covered in screens. If I had a virtual reality headset nearby, I would strap it on.

The screen is my only contact with my parents, whom I miss but can’t visit because I don’t want to accidentally kill them with the virus. It brings me into happy hours with my high school friends and gives me photos of people cooking on Facebook. Was there a time I thought Facebook was bad? An artery of dangerous propaganda flooding the country’s body politic? Maybe. I can’t remember. That was a different time.

Walt Mossberg, my former boss and a longtime influential tech product reviewer, deactivated his Facebook and Instagram accounts in 2018 to protest Facebook’s policies and negligence around fake news. Now, for the duration of the pandemic, he is back.

“I haven’t changed my mind about the company’s policies and actions,” Mr. Mossberg wrote on Twitter last week. “I just want to stay in touch with as many friends as possible.”

Grass-roots initiatives and rich donors in Spain help provide critical supplies.

Health workers at the door of Dos de Maig Hospital in Barcelona applauding back to neighbors on Tuesday.
Health workers at the door of Dos de Maig Hospital in Barcelona applauding back to neighbors on Tuesday.Credit...Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

On a day when the toll in Spain rose by yet another record amount, with 864 new deaths in the past 24 hours, the nation’s overwhelmed health care system has received a much-needed influx of emergency equipment as the authorities began distributing seven million sets of individual protection equipment to medical professionals.

The Spanish health minister, Salvador Illa, said his country had also received a new shipment of test sets, after 640,000 kits that proved substandard had to be sent back to China.

But even as the authorities scrambled to fill a shortage of protective equipment that has hobbled Spain’s hospitals — drawing outrage from medical professionals on the front lines — countless private initiatives have sprung up to help fill the gap, often financed by wealthy donors and grass-roots associations.

With more than 9,000 fatalities, Spain is No. 2 in deaths linked to the coronavirus. Only Italy has recorded a worse toll so far.

In Barcelona, homeless shelters and migrant collectives have volunteered to sew masks and medical suits, a local initiative that has been met by praise from health workers.

“I don’t know when the masks or the ventilators will come from China, and we need the equipment now,” Merce Guarro, a health professional at the Granollers hospital in Barcelona, said after she picked up 200 hazmat suits from the group last week. “It might be a drop in the ocean, but if they end up making 500 suits, that’s tremendously helpful.”

The actors Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz, perhaps Spain’s most famous couple, sent 100,000 gloves and 20,000 masks to La Paz hospital in Madrid, using one of the cargo planes of Inditex, the clothing giant that has helped deliver several shipments of emergency gear to Spain. The Spanish Formula One champion Fernando Alonso announced on Tuesday a donation to fund 4,000 sets of protective equipment and 300,000 masks.

Japan joins other Asian nations in tightening borders.

Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan, was nearly empty on Tuesday.
Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan, was nearly empty on Tuesday.Credit...Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Japan announced on Wednesday that it was extending a ban on entry to foreign travelers from 49 additional countries, including the Australia, China and the United States, to protect against the risk of imported infections of the coronavirus.

“With the explosive expansion of infection seen mainly in Europe and America, we decided to take stronger border measures,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan said during a meeting of the government’s coronavirus task force.

The island nation had previously banned entry to travelers from much of Europe as well as parts of China and South Korea. With Wednesday’s announcement, Japan will now ban travelers from 73 countries, about a third of the world. The new border controls go into effect at midnight on April 3.

Japan’s move aligns with a growing number of Asian countries and cities that are tightening their borders and imposing stricter containment measures to guard against a new wave of infections. Japanese citizens returning from any foreign country will be asked to quarantine themselves for two weeks after arrival.

The Health Ministry of Japan reported 225 new cases of the coronavirus on Wednesday, including five detected at airports, bringing the country’s total to 2,187 cases. The Tokyo Metropolitan Education board also announced that it would close all middle and high schools citywide through May 6 and asked cities and towns across the region to close elementary and middle schools for the same period.

Reporting was contributed by Motoko Rich, Peter Baker, Sarah Mervosh, Katie Rogers, Marc Santora, Megan Specia, Iliana Magra, Austin Ramzy, Keith Bradsher, Andrew Das, Michael D. Shear, Elian Peltier, Raphael Minder, David D. Kirkpatrick, Kate Kelly, Peter Eavis, Mujib Mashal, Matt Apuzzo and Chris Horton.

The Coronavirus Is Here to Stay, So What Happens Next?

There may be two to four more rounds of social distancing before this is over. Here’s what to expect.

By Ezekiel J. Emanuel, Susan Ellenberg and Michael Levy

Food-distribution workers observed social distancing as they listened to Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington speak about the city’s response to the coronavirus on Monday.Credit...Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

In the last few days, most Americans, even President Trump, have come to terms with the need for social distancing. Though they feel fine, they are staying home and developing new routines — killing time baking, binge-watching, figuring out how to home-school their kids. It took far too long for Americans to accept how serious the coronavirus is.

Now that we’ve finally taken the necessary measures in many places to close schools, offices, restaurants and other businesses, people are asking: How soon will it all be over? Two weeks? Four weeks? When can we go back to normal?

Unfortunately, normal is a long way off. We need to be thinking in terms of months, not weeks.

We need to stop picturing that ubiquitous “flatten the curve” chart and start imagining a roller coaster.

Social distancing works. As China, South Korea and other countries have demonstrated, it is possible to slow the spread of the virus and limit how many people are infected at one time.

This will keep hospitals from being overwhelmed with patients, so that those who are sick can be treated competently and compassionately. It will also give researchers time to work on developing vaccines and medications that could reduce the severity of the virus and save lives.

No one knows for sure how long social distancing will have to last to reduce the spread to near zero. But if South Korea and China are appropriate exemplars, we’ll need to stay apart now for at least eight weeks, and maybe more.

China locked down Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province on Jan. 23. Today, provincial officials are reporting few or no new cases of the virus. Just a few days ago, they closed the last of their 16 makeshift emergency hospitals. Consequently, restrictions are easing. Schools and offices are slowly opening. People are beginning to go out and see other people.

That timeline suggests that your kids are not going back to school on April 1. Nor are you returning to the office or catching a movie anytime soon. Plan for social distancing at least until mid- or late May, and be thankful if it eases off earlier.

What can we expect when Americans slowly emerge from their homes? Like much about this novel virus, we don’t know for sure. A likely scenario is that there will be subsequent waves of the disease. That’s what happened in Denver in the 1918-19 influenza pandemic and in Toronto during the 2003 SARS outbreak. Over the next few months, South Korea, China and other countries will generate some relevant evidence to show how this might play out.

Many people desperately hope that warmer, more humid weather will decrease the transmission of this coronavirus. But the reality is that influenza and most cold viruses wane in the summer in part because so many people catch them in the winter. Humans have never been infected with this coronavirus before, so there is no acquired immunity. At this point we have woefully little evidence to suggest a seasonal reprieve.

We assume that people who are infected and then recover, whether they develop symptoms or not, will most likely become immune and will not transmit the virus in the future. (Though it is possible, as with other types of coronavirus, that mild infections might not provide full immunity in the short term or lifelong immunity.)

The irony of successful social distancing is that fewer will develop immunity. That means that social distancing 2.0, 3.0 and, who knows, maybe even 4.0 will very likely have to occur.

The next round of social distancing will be activated more rapidly, because officials — and the public — will be more prepared. It should also be shorter, because we can assume that most of the people who were initially infected are likely to be immune next time around. But it will still disrupt people’s lives and the economy.

We will still have canceled conferences and sporting events. People will not frequent restaurants and will not travel. The service industry will be severely curtailed. And it’s going to happen again and again.

Maybe the best analogy is pumping a car’s brakes on an icy road. Either doing nothing or slamming on the brakes leads to an accident. So we pump the brakes — pushing on the brakes, then easing up, and then applying them again — and after three or four times we slow down enough to stop.

When will the coronavirus be tamed like influenza, if not conquered like smallpox? A vaccine would need to be administered to an estimated 45 percent to 70 percent of the population — at least 145 million people — to stop the spread of the virus. If we are lucky, and an effective vaccine is quickly developed, this could happen by the fall of 2021.

It might even be sooner if researchers can come up with an effective treatment that, in addition to preventing deaths, reduces the infectiousness of each case. One antiviral drug, remdesivir, has shown promise in treating monkeys infected with a similar coronavirus, and is being studied in humans. Trials of other drugs will begin soon. Again, if we are lucky, these trials may identify one or more effective treatments in four to five months.

The alternative to this roller coaster would be even more drastic. It would require sustaining social distancing until there are no more cases whatsoever and then closing borders to all travelers — no contact with the outside world — for 18 months or more. While the United States and many other countries, like Denmark and Germany, have instituted travel bans, sealing the country off for over a year until a coronavirus vaccine is discovered seems implausible. But who knows. If the situation becomes dire enough, the previously impossible could become inevitable.

On a positive note, each time the virus resurges after social distancing is relaxed, it will do so more slowly. But the flattened curve we are all hoping for — the one that is so critical to our health care infrastructure — will not actually be flat. It is more likely to be a series of ascents and descents, with dampened oscillations. So all of us — health care workers, policymakers and American citizens — need to get ready for a bumpy ride.

Ezekiel J. Emanuel is the chairman of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, where Susan Ellenberg is a professor of biostatistics and Michael Levy is a professor of epidemiology.