We are a different country now


After three years of the pandemic, some of the socio-economic effects are starting to come into focus. The rhythms of daily life were changed in so many ways by lockdowns, fears over being around people in stores, churches, doctors offices, fitness centers and normal off-duty social gatherings. Those disruptions have led to cascading consequences — all in the dark shadows of overwhelming death (over 1,000,000 Americans have died from the pandemic so far).

New York City and Washington, D.C., like other major metropolises, have recovered somewhat, but they are not back to pre-pandemic levels of vitality. Many people left cities during the pandemic and have never returned. With the alternative advent of remote work, many have traversed to less dense rural environments seeking, as psychologist Ruth Ogden said in Time Magazine, “eager for ways to shore up their souls against the drain of the productivity culture.” The pandemic caused an unexpected intermission from the high-tech hamster-wheel grind of productivity.

Ogden went on to say her interest in these outcomes were “sparked when she kept hearing the odd pre-pandemic complaint from people that they wanted to do nothing, but simply couldn’t find the time… when people say they don’t have time, what they mean is they don’t have control.” Then came the pandemic, the uneasy intermission, lifetime disruptions, time to rethink wants, needs, purpose in life and the search for “control.”

All this is preface in part to examining what has transpired since the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic has passed; yet it needs to be said that people are still dying from COVID-19 and huge numbers are now dealing with what has come to be known as “long-COVID.”

We hear about the fallout from the COVID pandemic in bits and pieces but if you add it all up, the sum of the pieces is monumental. Post-pandemic mental health issues are enormous. For young people who were out of school for extended periods of time, sequestered from their friends, and channeled into the digital realm of social interaction, the psychological effects have been profound. For households that have experienced COVID-related deaths, the emotional leftovers are likely to live on.

The inadequacies of our public health care system in the United States and the stress that our health care providers endured were together somewhere between disturbing and alarming. It’s no wonder so many nurses have left the profession given what they endured in the hospital halls of death with nurse-patient ratios terribly out of sync. Will we be able to respond to our nation’s health care inadequacies?

Public education had its own disruptions. Cancelled classes, masks, virtual learning and in the case of the latter, parental insights into curriculum and their views about what they want their children to see and learn. These views are often in accordance with their values, and as is the case nowadays, colored by politics. Downstream, this has led to rambunctious school board meetings and arguments over books in libraries, as well as alleged sexual and social-justice curriculum issues. An article in the NYT about such conflicts in Mentor, Ohio, cited parents who are signaling their exhaustion, their fatigue over the fights separating friends, neighbors and family but still clinging obstinately to their talking points and political positions. Can we find a new normal in public education or will the cultural wars cripple our vaunted and historically praised pre-collegiate public education system?

Poverty is another consequence of the pandemic. J.Ramos and F.Lara at The Brookings Institution noted in a report that, “The COVID-19 pandemic was accompanied by disrupted supply chains, a hike in commodity prices and inflation, increased public and private debt, and reduced economic output… income poverty suffered an increase because of transitory conditions.”

Supply-chain disruptions caused shortages, companies raised prices as demand increased, inflationary effects caused those in the vicinity of the poverty level to suffer further hardships and the cascading effects of these conditions are manifold and have compounded. Most egregious is that as supply-chain pressures decreased, companies kept their prices high, their profits soared and executives gave themselves generous bonuses, and the poor have gotten poorer. High demand and labor shortages also led to increased costs in childcare, adding insult to injury.

There’s more. Disruptions caused early retirements. Airline pilots, teachers, nurses and school bus drivers to name a few, just decided to give it up. We’re familiar with these consequences. Canceled flights for lack of qualified pilots, nursing shortages, bus driver shortages, and many other employee shortages were induced by low wages and low incentives to come back to work. Workers have been demanding higher pay, shorter work weeks and in some instances workweek days to be able to work from home.

The CARES Act, the American Rescue Plan and other government pandemic relief has tapered, leaving many folks with hard choices to make about returning to work, changing careers, or making retirement permanent; and, whatever those decisions might be, how to manage their lives in a post-pandemic world.

We are a different country now. We have increased poverty and mental health issues, employment issues, inflation issues, public education issues, partisan issues, loneliness issues, career issues, Vladimir Putin issues and escalating climate issues, all of which are immiserating broad swaths of our society.

In the midst of all this I’m suggesting that it’s time to get off our couches, pull our souls out of our mobile phones, see our lives through the proverbial rose-colored glasses, see these new and developing challenges as opportunities, invoke our American ingenuity, tell ourselves that there is more that unites us as Americans than divides us, and to do whatever we can as a proud nation to lift those in poverty, which will solve and disentangle many of these associated post-pandemic problems. Let’s get to work.

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

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