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A Year Into COVID, What Have We Learned?

Key takeaways about the roles of power, money and race in shaping America’s response to the pandemic.




A dose of COVID-19 vaccine is prepared at a vaccination event in South Los Angeles on March 11. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

On March 12 of last year, Capital & Main closed its Echo Park newsroom on Sunset Boulevard and instructed staff to work from home until further notice. We assumed that we wouldn’t be back for at least a few weeks.

Co-published by Patch

One year later, our office is still vacant, but the reporting we have done over the past 12 months will reverberate for years within the collective consciousness of our team. The lessons gleaned from covering the COVID-19 pandemic offer a roadmap for any publication interested in exploring society’s most vexing social challenges, including the fundamental question of why power, money and privilege are distributed so unequally in a country founded on egalitarian ideals.

The following are some key takeaways from the nearly 200 stories we have produced about the pandemic since the novel coronavirus redefined life as we know it, and some questions for the months and years ahead:

Obliviousness to facts is not limited to one party.

Progressives tend to blame the demise of facts as the basis for governance on the right. But the past year has shown that liberals are just as prone to governing with little concern for objective reality. More than once, Democratic leaders in California and elsewhere jettisoned common-sense public health rules in a rush to reopen, only to see infection rates soar, hospitals overflow and morgues run out of room. As large swaths of the country once again start to reopen, we should stop and ask: Are we doing the same thing and expecting a different result, at the possible cost of many lives?

Shared sacrifice is so mid-20th century.

The writing may have been on the wall back when President Jimmy Carter was scorned for asking his fellow Americans to turn down the heat during one winter cold snap. But the brazen refusal by tens of millions of people, including many elected leaders, to abide by the simplest disease prevention guidelines revealed the corrosive power of selfishness. We would do well to ask ourselves how we can once again cultivate the capacity for shared sacrifice, because we will surely need it in the future.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There are heroes among us.

Of course, millions of Americans did sacrifice in profound ways, starting with health care workers and other frontline workers who showed up every day, knowing that they were being exposed to a potentially fatal virus. They persisted even as the actions of those who flouted safety protocols put them at even greater risk. One question that both elected leaders and the rest of us should consider is this: What obligation do we have to those whose physical and mental health or economic well-being suffered as a result of their actions to protect us?

We starve government at our own peril.

President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is an acknowledgement that there is no substitute for a muscular governmental response to our most pressing societal needs. Decades of underinvestment in everything from public health to anti-poverty programs created the perfect conditions for a pandemic to ravage both poor communities and the country at large. Biden’s rescue package is a critical step in the right direction – but the larger question is, How can the nation build the political will for the kind of sustained investment we desperately need?

Nursing homes are death traps and must be radically overhauled.

The pandemic showcased what advocates have known for a long time – the nursing home industry is a human rights disaster. Yes, residents of these facilities are more vulnerable to predatory viruses than most of us, but the sheer scale of death among nursing home residents has exposed criminal negligence on the part of both operators and the government agencies that too often fail to regulate them. Nothing less than a complete overhaul of the industry, starting with congressional hearings, will fix a problem that affects every corner of the nation. With all the challenges facing the country, however, who will lead the charge?

Public health is a huge civil rights issue.

The pandemic’s racial divide is hardly surprising in a country where so many indicators of well-being show nonwhite Americans lagging. But the scale of disparity in COVID-19 infections and mortality reveals the huge stakes for Black and brown communities when it comes to investment in public health. Budgets cuts drastically limited the ability of public health agencies to slow the spread of the virus, and the impact has been disproportionately felt among communities of color. Now is the time to ask, how do we prioritize public health in normal times, both to address the chronic racial gap in outcomes — and to prepare for the next public health emergency?

The stock market is completely divorced from the economic reality of most Americans.

Critics have long argued that what’s good for Wall Street has little to do with what’s good for Main Street. The pandemic has proven them right beyond their wildest dreams, with the stock market becoming so untethered from the day to day financial reality of most Americans that it should be discarded as a reliable indicator of the nation’s economic health.

Our very survival depends on a massive low-wage workforce.

Warehouse workers. Delivery drivers. Farmworkers. Nursing home and home health care workers. Millions of low-paid employees and misclassified independent contractors kept the rest of us fed and cared for while we sheltered in place. Though they were labeled essential, their compensation tells a different story, and it is a shameful one that is already fueling a resurgence in public support for unions. But the question remains: Can labor and its allies capitalize on this moment to reinvigorate the only movement truly capable of restoring some semblance of economic balance to the nation?

We are completely unprepared for the coming ravages of climate change.

While COVID-19 spread with singular ferocity, the steps needed to control it were relatively simple – masking, social distancing, frequent hand-washing, etc. The fact that we mostly failed to stop the virus does not bode well for the much more complicated challenge of avoiding catastrophic damage from climate change. As climate driven fires, storms and droughts intensify, we are faced with the monumental task of shifting from a carbon based economy to one fueled by clean energy. The biggest question confronting the nation, and the world, is this: Can we act with the kind of decisiveness and speed that we could not muster to combat COVID?

Copyright 2021 Capital & Main

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