OPINION | We’ve hardly gotten to know you, coronavirus

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ONE of the most infuriating aspects of the coronavirus pandemic is the uncertainty about when it will end.

There is much talk about peaks being reached, trajectories leveling off, incidences upward or downward, vaccines in the works, phased reopenings of businesses. But nobody can say with authority when the danger of the virus will be gone, or that it won’t return later with greater virulence.

If one has what Henry James called “the imagination of disaster,” it is all too easy to see the coronavirus hanging around for another year or two, possibly three. The virus’s dreary presence has evoked a longing for a return to “normalcy,” a word favored by the impressively mediocre Warren Harding and mocked by H.L. Mencken. In our day, we have the phrase “the new normal.” But there is nothing normal, however new, about the conditions brought about by the pandemic.

Perhaps the most striking abnormality is the omnipresence of physicians on news shows. So ubiquitous have some been that they have achieved celebrity status and beyond. Anthony Fauci is perhaps better known than Stephen Curry or Gwyneth Paltrow. Deborah Birx, trailing her Hermès scarfs, cannot be far behind. Doctors on local stations have become as familiar as the anchors.

These physicians are presumed to have what Ernest Hemingway styled as “the true gen,” or the real lowdown, about the coronavirus. They are on our screens, presumably, for reassurance: to tell us what to do and what not to do, to tell us what is safe and what dangerous, to let us know what progress is being made and how much longer we need live with this monstrous incursion on our lives.

Some specialize in epidemiology, in immunology, in virology, in public health. On television they flood us with information, more, it sometimes seems, than we can handle. They talk about models, curves, numbers, percentages. They tell us everything except what we want to know: how the coronavirus began, where it is headed, and when it will end.

Thus far little predicted by the various scientific experts has come to pass. Not the number of deaths nor the duration of the virus, nor the time of a return to normal life. Yet when the talk turns to reopening the economy, many people, governors and mayors among them, say they await the word of science.

One major casualty of the corona-virus may turn out to be to the prestige of science. Not that such prestige has always and everywhere been deserved. Whenever the authority of science is invoked, usually to end an argument, I think of a gent named Antonio Egas Moniz, a Portuguese neurologist who in 1949 won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for developing — pause to gulp — the lobotomy. Science, being a human enterprise, is heir to all the usual human failings. Yet science, alas, is all we have.

As the disc jockeys used to say, the beat goes on. I look out the windows of my sixth-floor apartment onto the normally active thoroughfare of Chicago Avenue below and find it largely bereft of traffic. After three or four minutes an older woman walks by toting two heavy bags of groceries; a jogger darts past; a young man in white mask and blue rubber gloves stops to gaze upward. If he is looking for a silver cloud in the new abnormal brought on by the coronavirus, he isn’t likely to find one.

Mr. Epstein is author, most recently, of “Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.”

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