State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Moving Toward a Post-Pandemic New York City and Nation

At the end of last week, following the new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, I walked mask-less in Morningside and Riverside Park for the first time in over a year. I’ve been fully vaccinated since March and my university has tested me 20 times since December and found me COVID-free each time. About 35% of all New Yorkers are fully vaccinated, but I can tell you that less than 10% of the people in those parks were going mask-less. It is going to take a while before we remember how to be comfortable with each other in public space. Part of the issue is that the rate of COVID-19 infection remains high, even as it is coming down. We’ve seen the infection rate rise and fall quickly before, and the treatment and long-term impact of this virus are still relatively unknown. COVID-19 terrifies us, as it probably should.

Nevertheless, the lockdown will need to end soon. Perhaps not as soon as the spotlight-needy mayor and governor of New York think, but certainly before the start of the new school year next September. The reason for this deadline is economic. The U.S., under both President Trump and Biden, has spent about $5.3 trillion dollars on COVID relief. Our economy has survived and is recovering due to this intense stimulation, but our ability to provide pure subsidy is coming to an end. The Biden proposals for infrastructure and rebuilding a social safety net are investments in bringing back the economy and making sure that our economy is more productive and fairer. It is not a pure subsidy but a method for putting more of this country to work.

For those investments to pay-off, Americans must go back to work. For Americans to go back to work, our K-12 schools must be re-opened fully. That means re-opened without social distancing. America does not have the classroom space to teach its kids sitting six or three feet apart.

To keep the pandemic at bay and bring it to a manageable level, we will need mass vaccination of children along with the rest of the country, and the development and implementation of booster shots to deal with the variants that will emerge. Assuming the COVID vaccines are proven safe and then authorized for children, and assuming institutions and venues require vaccination of employees and patrons, we will then be able to resume normal life. We still will not eliminate COVID. We will need to learn to tolerate its presence and upgrade our public health infrastructure to keep it under control. Testing, tracing, isolation, masks, and vaccination are tools we will need to apply and learn to live with when needed. Just as we go through physical security checks at airports and other venues, we will need to get used to ever more sophisticated methods of biological security checks as well.

But social distancing will need to be discarded and we will need to tolerate crowded rooms, subways, airports, and streets once again. Our economic engine requires human density and the idea that we will forever be on Zoom should also be dismissed. It starts with schools because people can’t focus on work while they are caring for their school-age children. Schools educate and socialize children, but they also keep them safe while their parents are at work. There are over 56 million school children in America. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

“In 2020, 33.0 million families, or two-fifths of all families, included children under age 18… Among married-couple families with children, 95.3 percent had at least one employed parent in 2020, and 59.8 percent had both parents employed.”

In 2020, more than 13.7 million families with children had both parents employed, a decline of over a million since 2019. According to the Annie C. Casey Foundation, in 2019, nearly 24 million children in America lived in homes led by a single parent. Here in New York City, according to the Citizen’s Committee for Children in New York, 965,037 children were being raised by two parents and 428,214 were being raised by single parents.

These data provide a sense of the number of people who rely on schools for childcare. Whether there are two parents at home or one, there are many households where all the adults work for pay. We know that one impact of COVID has been an increase in the number of women with children leaving the workplace. To reduce that trend and enhance the productive capacity of our aging population, we will need to fully re-open our schools. Only then can we fully re-open our economy.

School re-opening will have a catalytic impact on re-opening New York City. If conditions allow for safe school re-opening, why would anything else need to remain closed? If schools cannot re-open and our ability to stimulate the economy is exhausted, we will enter an economic depression that will cause far more political and economic pain than we experienced during the COVID recession of 2020. A great deal is riding on our ability to convince our neighbors to get vaccinated and on the reduction of COVID infection rates.

It is indeed unfortunate that the wisdom of Anthony Fauci and his colleagues was politicized and that a mature discussion of the tradeoff between virus and economic impacts could not be held. A particularly absurd discussion was the recent attack on Fauci by Congressman Jim Jordon. Nathanial Wexel provides an excellent report on Jordon’s shameless attack in The Hill:

“A congressional hearing on the pandemic turned personal when Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) loudly attacked Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease doctor, about when Americans will be able to stop taking public health precautions like wearing masks and physical distancing. During multiple rounds of questioning at a House Oversight coronavirus subcommittee hearing Thursday, Jordan pressed Fauci on the idea of herd immunity, and when Americans can expect to go back to normal. ‘When do Americans get their freedom back?’ … Fauci tried to explain that the best course of action is to gradually lift restrictions and return to normality ‘when we get the level of infection in this country low enough.’ Jordan interrupted, pressing Fauci to ‘give me a number.’ ‘You’re indicating liberty and freedom. I look at it as a public health measure to prevent people from dying and going to hospital,’ Fauci said, adding that life will return to normal when people get vaccinated.”

The fact is that threats to our safety in a complex, interconnected and interdependent society have already reduced our liberty and sadly that trend will not be reversed. Cameras in the streets, on satellites, on smartphones, in doorbells and on drones have created an observed world. There are tradeoffs between liberty and security and between health restrictions on our behavior and economic well-being. These tradeoffs require a dispassionate, reasoned discussion. A dialogue where facts and values are illuminated, and choices made with a clear understanding of benefits and costs. Demonizing or lionizing Fauci and his colleagues is not a helpful part of this discussion.

The COVID crisis has stimulated two sets of unhelpful extremes. On the one hand, we see people who simply refuse to leave their homes. On the other hand, and far more common, we see people who think COVID is a hoax that they can safely ignore. For those hiding out, we need to convey the fact that all life involves risk. We all need to calculate the real risk posed by the virus and see what we are willing to tolerate. For those who refuse to understand the science and acknowledge any risk, our task is more difficult. This will not be the last pandemic, and threats from climate change to COVID will be a more frequent occurrence in our complicated, interconnected world. In the end, they will find that if they ignore the virus, they won’t be able to travel or go to public events.

Here in New York, we have the months from now until August to adjust to the post-pandemic world. It will be a gradual, bumpy transition. Commuters who have driven into the city to avoid mass transit are already starting to see the roads begin to gridlock. When I walk home from work, the everyday traffic heading north on Riverside, Amsterdam, and Broadway, looks like holiday get-away traffic. People will eventually remember why they used to take the train. In other parts of the country that are built around the auto, this transition will not be needed. In New York, the move back to mass transit is like the move back to school- without it, our region’s economy cannot function.

While political and economic reality requires a full opening after Labor Day, the trauma of the past year will stay with us for a long time. Although most work will move back to the office, some will remain remote. The first time someone coughs near you at the theater or in a bar, you will notice it in a way you never did before. The trend toward walkable cities has been delayed by the temporary advantage of the COVID-free bubble we call the car. We should be prepared for the stress and anxiety of moving out from behind our screens, but we should also be ready for a time when hands can be shaken and hugs can be given, and our tactile, social species is able once again to exhale.

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

I can’t wait for the day when we finally beat this horrible virus!