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Looking Back and Looking Ahead After a Year of Pandemic

It was one year ago that New York City shut down, the streets emptied, and we moved from real to virtual space. It has been the most difficult year many of us have ever known. Political leaders at all levels and in most nations failed us, and a deadly virus found us. Globally, 116 million people have been infected, and nearly 2.6 million people have died. Here in the United States, 29 million people have been infected and over 525,000 people have died. The number of people we have lost is the cause of great and profound sadness. It is stunning that our political leadership has paid such a small price for this immense failure. Donald Trump viewed the virus chiefly as an obstacle to his reelection, and rather than recognize it and respond to it, he politicized it and tried to wish it away. He did one thing right: spending a great deal of money to develop vaccines in record time, but he did nearly everything else wrong, and in the end, lost the presidency because of his failure to respond to the greatest health crisis of the past century. Today, the premature end of state mask mandates by Republican governors is the legacy of his effort to politicize public health.

On March 20, Joe Biden will complete his second month in office and responding to the COVID-created health and economic crisis has been his highest priority. The pace of vaccination has picked up and now exceeds two million shots a day, and the federal government has used its full range of power, funding and organizational capacity to partner with state and local governments and private parties to respond to the crisis. As Stephanie Armour and Sabrina Siddiqui recently reported in the Wall Street Journal:

“In his first month in office, President Biden has positioned the federal government squarely at the front of the battle against Covid-19, tapping the military to staff mass-vaccination centers, joining with state and local officials to accelerate the pace of vaccinations, and requiring masks on buses, planes and federal property…But Mr. Biden’s efforts to use his bully pulpit to pressure states to take actions the federal government doesn’t control—such as keeping mask mandates in place—have had mixed results, and many school districts across the country are still grappling with how and when to return to in-person instruction. Governors and state public health officials said that under the Biden administration they have more regular communication with, and access to, senior officials in the White House than they did before. The Trump administration deferred many decisions on how to fight Covid-19 to states.”

The Senate’s enactment this past Saturday of the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill will provide funds for economic relief, vaccination, testing, medical research, education, state and local governments, small businesses, the arts, health care and child poverty. While there have already been multi-trillion-dollar spending bills to address COVID issues, there was an absence of federal leadership and a chaotic response that has already resulted in over half a million deaths. One can only imagine where we might have been if an aggressive federal response had begun a year ago. Here in New York, the early epicenter of the Corona Crisis, we were victims of the egos and infighting of New York City’s mayor and New York State’s governor. In New York City, we see an uncoordinated competitive vaccination effort with separate facilities managed by our state and city governments. The absence of state and city cooperation is shameful and a permanent stain on the already compromised reputations of our governor and mayor. Just as Donald Trump placed his political self-interest above the public interest, DeBlasio and Cuomo have demonstrated an inability to rise above petty politics in this moment of peril.

Fortunately, the federal government is finally moving in the right direction, although the period from March 2020 to January 20, 2021 was pathetic. It is easy to understand the tepid federal response to the pandemic, as pointed out last week in a terrific Washington Post op-ed piece authored by Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria concludes that the Biden COVID response “is demonstrating to Americans and to the world that the U.S. government can, once again, work.” As he notes in his incisive analysis:

“Government is hard. American government is harder still. It’s a political system designed to prevent tyranny, not facilitate speedy action. Power is checked, divided and shared. Making it work takes energy, ingenuity and, above all, a belief in government. Biden clearly learned from his experience running the stimulus program as President Barack Obama’s vice president. Klain, who coordinated the response to Ebola in 2014-2015, is impressively focused on execution. Biden’s covid-19 coordinator, Jeffrey Zients, is a talented executive who has excelled in the private and public sectors. (He may be best remembered for fixing the Obamacare website.)”

Zakaria correctly cites the root of the problem in the conservative ideology that sees government as a problem rather than an indispensable problem-solver. America’s anti-governmental ideology reinforced the passive approach of the Trump administration, leaving the problem in the hands of governors and mayors. To his credit, Biden is taking a more assertive approach.

Will it work? What is the long-term impact of this year in cyberspace? What comes next? When will normal life resume? Here are my preliminary thoughts:

Will Biden’s approach to COVID work?

Put simply, no one knows, but what could be worse than 525,000 dead in one year? With luck, a vaccinated public will resist the worst impacts of COVID-19 even as the virus mutates and the infection, hospitalization and death rates will drop to the point that we can gather together at restaurants, theaters, classrooms and family gatherings. The federal deficit is about as large as it can get, and Biden is betting that the $1.9 trillion will stimulate an economic boom that will generate the tax revenues needed to reduce the deficit. We are in this situation because of Trump’s failure to act and unwillingness to understand the persistence and danger of COVID-19. Biden assumed the presidency with a limited set of options, but within the next hundred days, we should know if his policies are working.

What is the long-term impact of the Corona Crisis?

Many people have died and many more remain sick. Students have missed school lessons and social interaction and there will be some impact on their personal growth and maturity. For a five-year-old girl, COVID-19 has been around for 20% of her precious life. It is a year that will never be recovered, although perhaps the extra time with some nuclear families may prove a saving grace.

We have accelerated our growing tendency to communicate, work and shop via the internet. But I also believe that for many people, the importance and value of social interaction have become newly appreciated. We miss each other. There are no random encounters on Zoom; every meeting is scheduled. As a city person, I treasure the informal street corner conversations that are part of the daily fabric of urban life. Finally, I hope that we gain a deeper understanding of the power of the natural world and the limits of human technology and our ability to command that world. We were helpless in the face of the force of this virus.

What comes next and when will normal life resume?

While I know that some people in Florida and Texas may believe the virus is in retreat, I fear they may pay for their overly rapid return to normal. I think our re-opening will be gradual as the infection and death rate is reduced by increased rates of vaccination. Even as we achieve herd immunity, our first visits to restaurants, theaters, and stadiums will be nerve-racking. It will take a while before we feel confident riding subways and traveling in planes. And yet, I believe that over the summer and into the fall, it should begin to happen. It will be gradual, accelerated by the school calendar, reopened offices, and holidays. A great deal depends on our willingness to take risks. There are no risk-free human endeavors. You can be killed crossing a street or riding a bicycle. Each of us constantly, if almost unconsciously, calculates the benefits and costs of everything we do. Over the past year, we have walked, fully masked, away from each other in the park and on the street. When will we resume walking toward each other, smiling with our entire face entirely visible? Our human need for social interaction will influence our calculus and my hope is that when normal life resumes, we never again take it for granted. What comes next is that our intense need for human interaction will be balanced against our fear of this deadly virus.

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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3 years ago

Cases are decreasing in most parts of the country, but they are still high. The mix of high case counts and growing vaccination levels makes an epidemiological soup that is primed to breed new variants that are resistant to the vaccines. We definitely don’t need that hurdle at the end of the race, so please keep taking care to protect yourself and your loved ones.