As the Covid years unfolded, it became apparent that the magnitude of its significance would not be known for many years, perhaps even not until well after my own death. Certainly it felt like the most important event I ever lived through which says a lot. Having been born in the 1960s, I’ve lived through the turbulent social changes of that time, the moon landing, Vietnam, 911, the Gulf Wars, and currently the divisions between the right and left political factions that led to the Jan. 6th, 2021 Insurrection at the Capitol. While all those events were important in their own ways, many of them felt distant or impersonal. Covid, while experienced differently for everyone, left no American untouched. Not really.
I chose to end a family history document of the event in the fall of 2022, but this was an arbitrary choice. There has been no concluding event that signals an end to Covid. Although a national memorial service was conducted at the Lincoln Memorial the day before Pres. Biden was sworn in (Jan. 19, 2021), the country has not yet fully grieved the losses and changes associated with the pandemic. In many ways Covid is not done with us. We still don’t know the full ramifications of how the pandemic has changed us as individuals (i.e.. the actual virus in our bodies) or as a society. The impacts of Covid are more than disease and death. It will be years before we have understood the ramifications of this event.
What can I say about being alive at this time? Overall, there is the pervading feeling that we failed. The challenge of Covid was an easy one. We had an enemy in the form of a disease that should have pulled us together as a nation and rallied us to fight a pathogen. It didn’t. Instead, it served as a wedge allowing some parts of society to try to undermine legitimate government and actively spread misinformation for political gain. Science and vaccines became enemies. People died as a consequence. Americans were poorly served by President Trump who had no desire to lead and who was clearly the wrong man for the times. The federal government was too slow, too unprepared, too disorganized to respond to a worldwide pandemic that everyone knew would eventually one day occur. We learned too late that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) was not the best organization to lead in an unfolding emergency. Leadership did emerge at the state level where we witnessed several governors step up to the task of leading. Notable among them were New York’s Gov. Cuomo, CA’s Gov. Newsom, and CO’s Gov. Polis. At the same time, we saw awful behavior among some governors who fought mask mandates, vaccines, and often reopened their states in defiance of health guidelines. In terms of infection and death rates, blue states (led by Democrats) fared better than red states (led by Republicans). This is due to the fact that Democrats believed there was a pandemic and that vaccines were a legitimate tool to fight infection. In general, Republicans were skeptical about Covid and often rejected vaccines and health policies advocated to fight the spread of the disease.
It must be remembered that the Covid years were experienced differently for people. Where you lived made a difference. People residing in New York City bore the early brunt of the first wave, suffered huge casualties, and witnessed triage methods that prioritized who would get treated. Nursing homes and residential care facilities had outbreaks that ripped through them. They were closed off to visitors and family. Many died alone. We all saw the videos of family members outside of windows waving their last goodbyes or Skyping them. While the elderly were the most vulnerable to the actual disease and death, even the young were heavily impacted. Schools were severely disrupted. Outbreaks caused schools to send students home. Many schools went to online models of instruction. Some used a hybrid of in-school and online learning. Not only did academic achievement suffer but so did student mental health. During the Covid years of physical separation, all age groups flocked to social media as a way to communicate. Not too surprisingly, mental health challenges increased, and social isolation will have to be something seriously considered for the next pandemic.
Although there seems to be a feeling that Covid has changed us, you get the sense that most Americans want to forget the experience as fast as possible. This happened during the 1918 Flu Pandemic as well. So pervasive was that forgetting that contemporary audiences only recently rediscovered that period of history as we became aware of the likelihood of another pandemic around the time of SARS (2003). The forgetting (I feel) is fully underway now. In searching for a book to give a broad sociological framework to the Covid experience, I could find none. There are books on the medical failures and personal accounts of what was experienced. So I was left to my own devices to address areas that seem relevant and likely to be impacted as we go forward. To be sure, history will write its own assessment of this time. It is important to understand that living through the experience is not the same as evaluating successes and failures after the fact when all the details are known. By and large, the average American was making decisions regarding risk in a world where the facts were not known. Most of us did the best we could. Some were led astray by misinformation. This was not without consequence, unfortunately.
Certain changes and trends have come about during the Covid years. Some of them were already underway and some are entirely due to the pandemic. Regardless, Americans will feel these changes.
While my family history document focused on how events unfolded in the US, the pandemic was worldwide. As a result, there were disruptions in supply chains throughout the Covid years that were unpredictable. It was not uncommon to wait for months to get building materials or furniture that came from abroad. The need for medical supplies the nation needed throughout the crisis was often exasperated by the fact that we had not stockpiled the items and did not control the manufacture of them either. So while, it felt like we were moving toward a global economy, Covid made us rethink how our interdependence on foreign suppliers was in fact crippling (especially when the whole world wants those very things at the same time). Perhaps we should be less dependent or so the thinking goes.
One of the primary areas that went through a significant rethink during this period was how Americans work. Covid forced many in service-related industries out of jobs for prolonged periods. Many of the jobs in food and hospitality never came back. Other workers (generally the better educated or computer-based services) were sent home to work from a home office. Work from home had long been proposed going back to the 1980s but never made much gain. Covid was the opportunity to see it launch and launch successfully. So popular was it, that when employers wanted workers to return to the office, it was met with resistance. Time at home gave people the ability to reevaluate the work/life balance. No longer were old work paradigms meeting today’s workers’ needs. The waves of change continue to ripple through the workplace. As they do, they spill over. What will urban landscapes look like if workers do not return to office buildings? Downtown shops and restaurants may need to adapt as business shifts to a more decentralized model. How do suburban neighborhoods change to serve the needs of stay-at-home workers or do they? What new forms of social and entertainment structure will develop as a result?
Although Americans had previously embraced online shopping, Covid forced us online in ways no one could predict. We came to rely on suppliers like Amazon, FedEx, UPS, and others to receive goods when we were in lockdown and beyond. These workers became “essential workers” and we grew used to seeing them in our neighborhoods on a daily basis. As local shortages in stores manifested, we often took to the internet to scout out suppliers and have them delivered. Contactless shopping modes developed during this time. Ordering locally and waiting in the parking lot for your groceries or food to arrive kept us safer during Covid. This limited our exposure to other people (and potentially the virus). Other kinds of stores like hardware, office supply, and craft stores also had pick-up in the parking lot. It is interesting to note that during this period it was not uncommon to sit in the parking lot and wait to be called inside for doctor or veterinarian appointments, as well. Some of these modes of shopping continued beyond the crisis and proliferated after the pandemic’s height. With the retail market under severe pressure, many stores and especially restaurants closed permanently. There is no doubt that where and how we shop is undergoing massive change.
Early in the Covid crisis, as more and more people were sent home, certain expectations arose. One was that the birthrate would skyrocket. That never happened. The economic and life-threatening nature of the crisis gave Americans pause over everything. Birth rates declined. Marriages were put off. People hesitated about selling their houses or making long-term decisions. Holiday events, reunions, graduations, and funerals did not happen. Yes—people were buried but sometimes with only a few family members present because we were not allowed to gather in groups during some periods of the pandemic. Many of life’s milestones went unmarked. This also must be factored into the mental health toll.
Even as I write this in 2023, we do not know the real numbers of dead. There remains some uncertainty over when the virus first hit America. In addition, there are anomalies on data collection between the states and amongst the various data sources. Some people who got Covid did not recover in the usual way, and they were given the illness tag: Long Covid (now called post Covid19 by the World Health Organization). The medical community is trying to understand the symptomology and prevalence of the condition. However, at this point, not much is known. Some are severely impacted. We await more information on the various vaccines (any long-term effects on the body, if any, which are unknown at this point) and of the virus itself. We still don’t know the exact origin of the Covid virus. Much speculation occurred over whether the virus came from a lab or wet market in China, or some other source. No doubt, science will reveal much more about all this. During 2019-2020 life expectancy dropped 1.5 years largely a result of the Covid19 pandemic (from 78.8 to 77.3 years). It was the largest one-year decline since WWII.
The one truly remarkable victory of this time was that the US, through the private sector with government subsidies, produced several effective vaccines within a year of the contagion. Masks, social distancing, shutting down, and eventually the vaccine, curbed the spread of Covid and prevented death. Going forward, it should be a cautionary reminder that Covid had a relatively low death rate. Even so, American hospital resources were quickly outstripped as waves of the disease hit. Factions of the American public resisted public health efforts encouraging vaccination and vaccination skepticism (fed by misinformation) continued. Higher rates of spread and higher death rates in future pandemics would likely lead to worse outcomes.
Lastly, there’s an attempt in Colorado to have some kind of memorial built to honor the 15,000 people who died in our state during the pandemic. It seems like a good idea but there also seems to be a need to do something nationally. The first permanent memorial for Covid-19 victims was established in 2021 in Wall Township, New Jersey. The modest display consists of 6000+ hand-painted rocks arranged in hearts and mounted in frames. Noble as the effort was, surely over one million American deaths require a larger, dedicated effort.