COVID-19 in 2020: several scenarios

For nearly two months I’ve been tracking the coronavirus outbreak.  I’ve been sharing forecasts, examining analyses, and collecting forecasts here, on Twitter, on LinkedIn, and Facebook.  Now I’d like to share some scenarios for how the pandemic might turn out.

A scenario is a futuring artifact, a story about the future, shaped by certain key forces and events.  Each scenario below is based on different understandings of COVID-19 and the human response to it.  Each scenario also responds to the others.  #2, for instance, can be caused by a nation failing to implement the policies of #3, or thinking the situation is more like #1.

These are not predictions but ways of thinking ahead.  So what can you do with them?  Their purpose is to help spur the reader’s thinking and planning about the next few years.  Some will follow a given scenario and imagine themselves in that future, envisioning their professional and/or personal lives in such a world.  Others will trace an institution, nation, or other entity along that track.  Still others will see a world formed by the combination or intersection of several scenarios.  And some will be inspired to craft their own.  All of these are excellent; I’d love to hear how you use them.

A note about scope: my analytical unit here is the nation.  The United States is the one I know best, but these scenarios should be applicable to many others, given some particular integration.  They may also apply to sufficiently large localities, such as provinces or states.

Caveat1: I am not an epidemiologist nor a sociologist or political scientist.  As a futurist I seek information across multiple domains and disciplines and weave the results into models and forecasts.  The following are based on that kind of research; I welcome corrections and other amendments in comments below and will gladly edit this post as necessary.

Caveat2: this post is only about the pandemic itself.  I’m saving commentary on educational implications for a subsequent post.


In this scenario COVID-19 appears, courses through a nation, then ceases, all within several months.  The relatively short time span may be due to aggressive public health measures: social distancing, surveillance, quarantines, travel bans, etc.  The virus may also not be as virulent in practice as was once feared.  Its mutations do not prove additionally dangerous or may actually prove less sickening. By winter 2020-2021 COVID is close to the flu in impact, if not its nature.

As evidence of this possibility, biophysicist and Nobel laureate Michael Levitt finds that the virus’ growth rate is lower than many estimates believe.  We can also look to the Chinese experience, specifically the outbreak, surge, and ultimate control in the province of Hubei in the course of roughly three months.

coronavirus China 2020 Jan-March Wikipedia

Bill Gates recently made the case for this scenario, provided a nation takes Hubei-style measures.  “If a country does a good job with testing and “shut down” then within 6-10 weeks they should see very few cases and be able to open back up.”

Italy might, hopefully, be about to realize this scenario:

This scenario is the most desirable of the three.


In this scenario COVID-19 surges through a population, retreats, goes quiet, then returns again.  It may repeat the pattern in successive waves over time, striking again and again.

Several factors  can drive this scenario.  Significant mutations of the virus could yield new forms that prove dangerous and difficult to treat.  A nation can reduce its anti-coronavirus measures too early, leading to a rebound.  As the recent Imperial College report observes, “Once interventions are relaxed… infections begin to rise…”

coronavirus in waves Imperial College report

One United States government report posits this scenario, imagining a “pandemic [that] will last 18 months or longer and could include multiple waves of illness.”

India might give us an early sign of that, attempting a “Janta Curfew (peoples’ curfew)” for just 14 hours.  Or US president Trump might offer another, if he shuts down containment measures too quickly, as some think he might.

Changing seasonal conditions could push down infections, then yield a fresh spike.

This scenario could also occur in local or regional settings, as successive viral waves move into a given population.  One nation could successfully experience a short infection, Hubei style, then get hit ahead by a wave transmitted from a neighbor or the right travelers.

Benign version: a vaccine tamps it down to being akin to the seasonal flu.  The warning then will be “Don’t forget to get your COVID shot!”


In this scenario a COVID-19 pandemic lasts for a year or two.  Biologically, the virus may prove to be just that virulent, possibly through mutation into different and/or more dangerous forms.  Politically, a state may decide to maintain anti-virus measures for that long a period through a combination of analysis, caution, and political will.

In particular, a government may choose to maintain aggressive policies until vaccines are found, determined to be effective, and available for widespread distribution.  The Imperial College report notes that

[t]o avoid a rebound in transmission, these policies will need to be maintained until large stocks of vaccine are available to immunise the population – which could be 18 months or more.

The American report noted in the preceding scenario also cited 18 months.

This may not be the best outcome for human life.  Neil M. Ferguson tells a New York Times columnist that his best case scenario for a long plague costs 2 million dead Americans. Think about what this could do to seniors, who are especially vulnerable.

For social and economic life this may be devastating.

…and so over to you.  What do you make of these scenarios?  How do you see yourself, your family, your professional world in each?  Which do you see as most likely (as opposed to most desirable) where you are?

Next up: using these scenarios to drive scenarios for higher education.

(thanks to Phil Komarny, Tom Haymes, and my wife, among others)

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