Opinion

What if we'd known COVID would last 2 years?

The follies and foibles of life in the pandemic

When the NBA abruptly canceled its season in 2020 as the "novel coronavirus" surged across the country, Americans didn't know what to expect. In the following days, a series of "shelter-in-place" orders were issued by governors across the country, and Americans were told that it would take "two weeks to flatten the curve" of infections to avoid overwhelming hospitals. Many individuals, in turn, calibrated their pandemic expectations around a relatively brief interruption to normal life.

But two weeks turned into two months and somehow, this week, into two awful years.

Most of us would have probably leaped into the nearest body of water if we'd known we'd still be living in a pandemic in 2022. Instead, analysts who warned early on that the world was in for at least an 18-month struggle with the virus were proven prophetically correct, while ordinary citizens were presented with one false dawn after another by politicians eager to declare victory or pretend it wasn't happening.

Would we have done anything differently if we had known how long we were going to be in the thick of the battle against SARS-CoV-2? The point here is not to play Monday morning quarterback for decisions that were, even at the time, fraught and difficult. But given the potential for new variants — as well as the near-certainty that this will not be the globalized world's last dance with a deadly, novel pathogen — it is imperative that we learn what went right and what didn't with our COVID response so that we are better prepared, emotionally, logistically, and yes, politically, for next time.

Judging from the distressed condition of many downtown areas across the country — closed restaurants, shuttered lunch joints, quarter-full trains and buses — it seems clear that we may have overshot the mark in terms of how long many people, particularly in big, blue-state cities, would remain hunkered down in their homes, even after vaccines became widely available. It's not just the possibly irreparable damage done to the fabric of many communities; a lot of people who lost their jobs or were confined to their homes for Zoom School, Zoom University, or Zoom Office Meetings ended up developing drug and alcohol problems, acute depression, and a kind of informal agoraphobia that might take years to shake off. 

Overall, the number of people who reported feelings of depression or anxiety quadrupled during the first year of the pandemic. Fears of excess deaths due to delayed treatment and pandemic stress turned out to be prescient; more than 200,000 excess deaths have been attributed to non-COVID causes likely exacerbated by generalized loneliness, despair, and isolation. Fortunately, suicide rates did not spike, perhaps because so many of those depressed people, including this author, sought treatment.

Does this mean the people shrieking about the lockdowns from day one were right? Hardly. The balance of the evidence makes it clear that the harsh early restrictions saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But the question of their efficacy should continue to be closely studied in the future with no ideological blinders, and should such a drastic step ever need to be taken again, we must be better prepared with access to mental health care, paid time off, real hazard pay for essential workers (which many states still have not distributed), and an acknowledgment that parents simply cannot work full time from home while their young children's schools and daycares are closed.

There's another question we should ponder: After those initial, terrifying, and dreadful months, should we have recalibrated? As one Republican friend quipped to me the other day, "The obvious solution was to mask up and carry on. But my side didn't want to mask up and your side didn't want to carry on." True enough, it's hard to see how most people returning to work and school by summer of 2020 could have dramatically worsened the outcome from the million-plus deaths we will ultimately endure even with the lockdowns and nearly two years of mandatory masking in some states.

Still, we may ultimately find that many of these social interventions did reduce mortality. Particularly in the early phases of the pandemic, and in the limbo period before vaccines were distributed, face coverings were one of the only tools we had. But that doesn't mean that people aren't entitled to see clear evidence of significant efficacy in reducing transmission, hospitalizations, and deaths; indeed, such evidence has been in particularly short supply during the Omicron wave, where it is genuinely difficult to discern any population-wide effects between states that required indoor masking and those that didn't. Of course it is safer to be in a room full of people wearing properly-fitted, high-quality masks. But it's also true that the hodgepodge of bandanas and off-the-shelf cloth and surgical masks, all generally not worn properly by many people, might not have done much of anything at all against Omicron, especially as bars and restaurants remained open. 

Some of the cumulative weight of hypocrisy and nonsensical policies around masks could also easily have been avoided. In Chicago, for example, the city's beaches and playgrounds were closed for an entire year even as restaurants and bars resumed some indoor operations in June 2020. Yet we knew almost from the jump that it was mostly safe to be outdoors, and so playground and park closures were just one more inexplicable indignity that served no meaningful purpose.

Ditto with compulsory outdoor masking of children, a display of hygiene theater that went on for far too long. The CDC has likewise never provided a shred of data to support its recommendation for indoor masking for toddlers, something that World Health Organization guidance explicitly opposed. When policies are so obviously dumb and ineffective, they wear down support for the whole enterprise and undermine trust in public health guidance generally.

Speaking of worn down, for all the attention paid to the problem of overrunning hospitals, the United States never made a meaningful effort to expand the overall capacity of the health care system. This felt particularly maddening during the Omicron surge, which arrived nearly two years into our collective nightmare. Many people stayed home this winter not because they personally felt particularly at risk but because they didn't want to inadvertently create additional strain on hospitals or, worse, end up there for something other than COVID, only to find no one able to treat them. 

Many others defiantly made no changes to their behavior after the initial 2020 stay-at-home orders were lifted. Former President Donald Trump rightly takes much of the blame for this pattern of COVID politicization, but perhaps a bit more live-and-let-live between red and blue states might have reduced the disastrous impact of the culture wars that ensued. Still, we divided into our little camps: pessimists dismissing any shred of good news as "hopium," and mitigation skeptics deriding anyone concerned about the virus as "Covidians." It is, if nothing else, completely exhausting to sort through.

It is ultimately COVID politics, though, that killed the most people in the United States over the past year. Since vaccines became widely available in the spring of 2021, hundreds of thousands of vaccine refusers have died completely unnecessary deaths. Worse, confidence in vaccines of all kinds has collapsed among Republicans, threatening a future of disease resurgence across the board.

One thing's for sure: There can be no reconciliation without a sustained effort to get at the truth of what happened during COVID, and no truth without a collective stepping back from the brink of partisan madness, to give us time to grieve the totality of what has been lost, gird ourselves for the possibility that it might not be over, and imagine how we might greet the next disaster with unity rather than the weakness and division we allowed to consume us. 

Perhaps, in the end, it would indeed have been better to know how long COVID would last, as painful as it would have been — to have seen with clear eyes that neither letting it rip, nor paying everyone to stay home for months, would have worked anyway.

To have seen that the only way out was through, and the only way through was together.

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