By Drew Magness
Maybe it hit you the first time you put on a mask to go outside, or when your concert tickets were refunded, or when you received an email from your boss telling you that you would be working remotely for a short period of quarantine. Or maybe it even hit you when your kids were sent home from school.
It hit us when we could not get toilet paper, when we had to cancel our weddings, graduations, and hospital visitations. When we lost parents, grandparents, friends, uncles, and siblings.
At some point, we all had the same thought, “Everything is different now”.
On March 11th 2021, the United States marked one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, though many of us did not feel the gravity of that moment until days and weeks later.
In his remarks on this anniversary, President Biden honored those we lost as he reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a card with the number of United States Citizens lost to the coronavirus, at that date 527,726, nearly a week after that speech, the number has jumped to 547,300. For perspective, that means more Americans have been lost to the coronavirus than have died in combat in every U.S. military conflict since the civil war. Since the first COVID-19 death was recorded in the United States, we have lost an American every minute.
The toll has been staggering. We have all undergone this tragedy together. The pandemic and recession have been associated with a rise of ‘deaths from despair’ (drug overdose, suicide, and alcohol) of anywhere from 10 to 60 percent. The IMF estimates that the global economy shrunk by 4.4% in 2020, the worst economic crisis since the great depression.
And the response has been similarly staggering. The United States Congress under Republican and Democratic administrations has spent $5.2 trillion on COVID-19 relief, digging the nation out of economic despair. 45% of all US dollars ever created were printed in 2020.
After a year that taught us the worth of connection and the deep danger of isolation, the mission of the Washington Institute for Business, Government, and Society has never been more prescient. The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the need for stakeholders in business, government, and society to come together and work on improving our global community.
The Institute has been publishing an interactive global map every week, showing the evolution of the coronavirus. It has discussed the pandemic extensively during its fireside chats, including one concentrating on corporate social responsibility. It will also focus on the impact of the coronavirus on a wide array of society, including at a global sports conference, which will cover the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, as well as the Beijing winter games and the Qatar World Cup.
Given our recent experience, hope at times has seemed like an illusional trap. Under these circumstances, hope can be the most terrifying of emotions; we have all been disappointed and beaten at nearly every turn. Each light at the end of the tunnel has seemed at times to be nothing short of a mirage. Yet, as Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson begin ramping up production and tens of billions of dollars are directed to vaccine distribution under the American Rescue Plan, for the United States at least, the light at the end of the tunnel is real. Public health officials are estimating a return to some sense of new normalcy by the end of the summer or early fall. I hesitate to dare make a prediction, but for many of us, this next year may be one of the best of our lives.
We will be able to hug our grandparents again, sit in a classroom, talk to a stranger at a bar, dance at a concert, get married, go to work, and return to everything we so took for granted. Our children will hopefully be able to return to in school learning, in a safe and secure environment.
For many, that wish holds hollow in the wake of incredible loss. Loss of work, loss of savings, loss of love, loss of the blessing of optimism, loss of friends, and loss of family have scarred us all.
Facing that darkness, I am reminded of the words of another newly elected president, entering office on the heels of national tragedy, on another day in March that marked history. In President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, he offered forth a spirit that we should carry with us today:
“I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive, and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
As we enter into this new period, as that light moves further and further away from the end of the tunnel and closer and closer to where we stand, may we carry the words of FDR with us, knowing that this great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive, and will prosper.
Let us remember two things. First, let us know that suffering is not distributed equally. Some of us have been lucky to walk through this pandemic with stable jobs, a loving family, and few casualties in our circle. Others have not. As New York Times journalist Yaryna Serkez noted, the burden of this pandemic has disproportionately fallen on black and brown families, low-income families, and women. After catching the coronavirus, people of color were 2–3 times more likely to die from it. For the wealthiest 25% of America, employment has largely returned to pre-pandemic levels, where for the lowest 25%, employment is still 28% lower than it was a year ago. Life expectancy went down by one year for white Americans and three years for black Americans. It cannot bear repeating enough, America has not suffered equally. Knowing this, may we remember to reach a helping hand to those who have borne more tragedy this year than we have. Let us remember to abide by the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him.”
And while those of us who have been confined over the past year in the United States can take solace in the fact that we have begun the progression to a post-pandemic world, we can never forget that other parts of our world are and will continue to suffer greatly. Until we have wiped out the coronavirus from the planet completely, we will never really be able to rid ourselves of the scourge, even within our borders.
Secondly, let us remember that we cannot advance alone. The Washington Institute for Business Government, and Society exists to build bridges between that trinity of stakeholders. This year has demonstrated how vital that mission is.
The light at the end of tunnel has only arrived because leaders in business, government and society have crossed barriers, partnered together, and led us out of this hole together. One of the hard-earned lessons from this pandemic is that we can no longer afford to see our efforts as isolated. After all silos are for farmers.
Businesses have a role to play in making sure their employees and customers are safe and happy. Government must consult private sector stakeholders and communities when it passes sweeping legislation like the American Rescue Plan or begins executive initiatives like Operation Warp Speed. These efforts were groundbreaking, crucial, and only possible because of efforts by private citizens and corporations to get shots in arms and food in hands. Finally, we, each one of us a member of a society, must remember our mindsets in early March, when we were all in this together, organizing mutual aid, volunteering at food hospitals, wearing our masks and distancing, before the political battle lines of the pandemic were drawn. As individual members of society, we have a responsibility to care for those around us. That responsibility does not end when we get enough vaccines in enough arms, it continues as long as we do.
Drew Magness — Research Policy Associate at the Washington Institute