State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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What We’ve Learned From the Pandemic in 2020

This has been a horrific year here in New York City, the United States and much of the world. This month, we will probably see the 400,000th American death from COVID-19. Many people have caught and partially recovered from the virus, and our lives and lifestyles are dominated by it. Some people in some places insist on continuing normal practices. I see pictures of crowded restaurants and bars in Arizona along with photos of overwhelmed intensive care units in that state’s hospitals. March and April taught those of us living in New York City that this virus is deadly and scary. Social distance and masks are routine on the streets of New York City. We’ve learned a lot about viruses and how they spread this year.

Martin Luther King taught us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Sadly, over the past year, we learned that that the angle of that arc was not what we had hoped, and justice seemed as elusive as ever. We learned that racism and xenophobia remain deeply rooted in America’s culture and will not be reduced without continued effort and struggle.

We’ve also learned that 40 years of Reaganism’s definition of government as a problem has effectively destroyed our government’s public health infrastructure. Starving government of tax resources has reduced the organizational capacity of America’s governments. In 1947, New York City’s health department inoculated 6.5 million people against smallpox in a single month. People waited hours in line for their shots. With smartphones and scheduling apps there is no reason we could not repeat that feat without the lines. It would require mass mobilization and consistent messaging, and of course supplies of vaccine. New York’s mayor has promised to vaccinate a million people this month. Few think it will happen and no one seems to understand how we managed to vaccinate 600% more people in a single month in the middle of the 20th century.

We’ve learned the price of ideology and its impact when it is adhered to blindly. Operation Warp Speed did a great job of accelerating the development of the vaccine by outsourcing its development to big Pharma. However, the use of federal authority to assure sufficient raw materials and mass manufacturing was not thought of until very recently. The idea that the federal government would work closely with state and local governments to get needles into arms was also not considered. To the ideological idiots in charge, the responsibility for vaccinating the public was the “state’s job.” I admire our federal system and consider it a great strength, but there are times of great urgency when we need the power, expertise and resources of the federal government. We need it after a hurricane and we certainly need it now.

The dysfunctional rollout of the vaccine reminds me of a classic public policy work of the early 1970s: a book entitled Implementation: How great expectations in Washington are dashed in Oakland; Or, why it’s amazing that federal programs work at all… written by Jeffery Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky. These scholars introduced the concept of the implementation chain, which in contemporary terms might be thought of as a type of supply chain. Pressman and Wildavsky identify all of the links in the chain that must be connected before a federal program designed in Washington was actually put into place in Oakland, California. A chain is of course only as strong as its weakest link. We learned this week that there are several weak links in the chain bringing vaccines from manufacturers into the arms of Americans.

We learned that our nation is so divided it cannot even unite to defeat this virus. In my view, our lack of unity is a direct result of the failed leadership of President Trump. He only knows the politics of division. Incredibly, at one point he tried to define the virus as a “blue state problem.” By denying the seriousness of the virus, sending misleading and dangerous messages and undermining public health policy, he has managed to politicize the response to the disease. No one benefits from an economic shutdown and no one likes wearing masks or social distancing, but until we are protected by vaccines these are the best ways to stay safe. Most, but not all of us learned that this year. I believe that Joe Biden’s margin of victory was largely a result of Trump’s failed leadership on the virus. People who voted down-ballot for Republicans but voted against Trump were voting for consistent, assertive national leadership on the virus.

In 2020, we learned that we need an assertive, consistent and rational federal government to beat back COVID-19. The federal government needs to pull together our most talented experts in manufacturing, logistics, public health, and mass vaccination and inoculate every American over 18 by April 1. Not June, not July, not whenever, but in the 10 weeks from January 20 to April 1. Once we learn if the vaccine is needed and safe for younger people, we should then vaccinate young people by May 1. An effort should be made to convince anti-vaccine people to get vaccinated, but they should not be forced to do so. Hopefully, the media will put a spotlight on every anti-vaccine person who falls victim to the virus.

The past year taught us a great deal about public policy, but the time we had for introspection also taught us a great deal about who we are and what we value. If we didn’t know it before, we certainly know now that we are a social species. I miss being in a theater applauding a performance or laughing at a joke. I miss the sound of live music and the chatter of a restaurant full of engaged people. I miss seeing my friends, family, colleagues and students in three dimensions, but will always be grateful for the miracle of the internet, Zoom and FaceTime that enabled me to engage with people in two dimensions. Those of us who remained in New York City learned the importance of the city’s parks. I’ve been interested in parks for a long time, and in the 1990s my colleague Bill Eimicke and I worked with then Parks Commissioner Betsy Gottbaum on improving parks management. This year my wife and I have marked the seasons of COVID-19 in Morningside, Riverside and occasionally, Central Park. Parks struggled this year due to ill-conceived budget cuts by the DeBlasio administration, but fortunately dedicated staff, volunteers and nonprofit groups stepped up and the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation managed to accommodate the huge number of New Yorkers who flocked to parks to see each other, and experience a sliver of nature in the city. We all learned to treasure these wonderful islands of beauty and life, as they stood in stark contrast to the horror and death presented by the virus.

We learned how dependent we are on each other for material and spiritual sustenance. The concept of the “front line worker” came into our lexicon, along with better articulation of the gratitude they have always deserved. These include health care, police, fire, and emergency workers but we also learned that people who work in grocery and drug stores, warehouses, transportation and delivery were also on the front lines of pandemic response. I live across the street from Morningside Park and down the street from St. Luke’s (now Mt. Sinai, Morningside) Hospital and the sounds that dominated last spring were ambulance sirens and birds. Those sounds of life and death were punctuated each evening by sounds of gratitude as we cheered our front-line workers.

We learned this year to pay closer attention to all the people who placed themselves at risk to serve others. Like some New Yorkers of my generation, I always over-tip, but this year I know I took it to extremes. I learned how lucky I am to have economic security and the resources needed to weather this storm, but I also learned how many people are not as lucky as I am. Watching the lines at food pantries and hearing the pain of people who normally give charity being forced to receive it reinforced my desire to see our social safety net transformed into a social foundation of assured benefits for people in need.

We learned through countless examples that people can be incredibly generous when they see others in need. America has this deep ideological divide until we see a child without food, a local business going under or a family without a home. Then we all pitch in to help. Joe Biden is a traditional “lunch pail” Democrat. He has spent a life in politics and public office but is shaped by a working-class upbringing, personal tragedy and his childhood effort to overcome stuttering. This unlikely national leader, like his polio-afflicted predecessor Franklin Roosevelt, will be called on to provide determined, consistent and competent national leadership. The vaccination of America must be a national project like placing an astronaut on the moon or defeating totalitarianism during World War II. We have many other priorities, but if we learned anything in 2020, it is that we need a unified American community if we are to defeat this virus and return to normal life.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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