Opinion | How Covid Changed America in 2020

Opinion | How Covid Changed America in 2020

Covid numbers recently climbed again. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once again reported monthly death tolls in the thousands. Mask mandates are back in New York City’s public medical facilities and nursing homes. The presidential race has kicked into gear, and just as in 2020, the stakes seem existential. It all makes me feel I’m revisiting a past I never actually left.

I’m not the only one wrestling with that feeling. In other ways, 2020 seems like another lifetime. The pandemic ended; we went on with our lives. Yet by considerable margins, people still say they feel alienated, vulnerable, unsafe. It’s only now becoming clear how little we understood what the United States experienced during that unforgettable year and how deeply it shaped us.

I’ve come to think of our current condition as a kind of long Covid, a social disease that intensified a range of chronic problems and instilled the belief that the institutions we’d been taught to rely on are unworthy of our trust. The result is a durable crisis in American civic life. Just look at the election cycle we are about to fall into: It seems the world turned upside down several times, and yet here we are facing the prospect of another contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, as though the country hasn’t moved forward an inch. Everything changed, and yet almost nothing changed.

In 2020, I learned about Daniel Presti, an affable and energetic 33-year-old who was trying to build a new business called Mac’s Public House, just a few miles from his childhood home in Staten Island.

Thanks, he said, to the inexplicably slow pace of the New York State Liquor Authority, it took nearly a year to open, but he and his business partner, Keith McAlarney, used the time to make the bar the nicest it could be. The idea was to make Mac’s a local commons. No political talk. No news on TV. “Keith and I are the furthest from political you can find,” Mr. Presti later told me. “We’re not getting into it.”

In March, when Covid-19 hit New York City, the same state government that took ages to issue a liquor license needed just days to demand that the newly opened Mac’s cease operations. Mr. Presti understood the threat and accepted the decision. What he didn’t expect was that the pub would have to remain closed or restricted, on and off, for more than a year. Or that, because his business was new, the government would offer so little financial support.

Mr. Presti spent the year in a state of anxiety and stress. No one in a position of power would listen to his pleas for assistance, and the rules for bars and restaurants kept changing.

His frustration was all too common. On a wide range of outcomes, including many that were less visible at the time, this country fared much worse during the Covid pandemic than comparable nations did. Distrust, division and disorganized leadership contributed to the scale of our negative health outcomes. As for our continuing distress, the standard explanation is a uniquely American loneliness. The surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, declared it an epidemic in its own right.

The truth, however, is there’s no good evidence that Americans are lonelier than ever. Our social patterns changed, of course. Yet a major recent poll showed that older Americans said they were significantly less lonely than they were three years ago; a recent peer-reviewed study reported that middle-aged Americans described themselves as less lonely than they were 20 years ago. Loneliness is more pervasive among younger Americans, but there too, the rates have also plummeted since 2020. Logically, we should be feeling better. Why can’t we shake this thing?

Because loneliness was never the core problem. It was, rather, the sense among so many different people that they’d been left to navigate the crisis on their own. How do you balance all the competing demands of health, money, sanity? Where do you get tests, masks, medicine? How do you go to work — or even work from home — when your kids can’t go to school?

The answer was always the same: Figure it out. Stimulus checks and small-business loans helped. But while other countries built trust and solidarity, America — both during and after 2020 — left millions to fend for themselves.

Now the Biden administration is flummoxed by why Americans don’t feel more optimistic despite all the good economic news, and some conservative groups are frustrated that Republican voters remain loyal to a candidate who has been charged with 91 felony counts. Voters are refusing to behave the way some are telling them would be rational. But the inequities that the pandemic laid bare have only deepened over time. For millions of Americans, distrust feels like the most rational state.

Over the past four years, I’ve gotten to know New Yorkers from every borough who felt abandoned by our core institutions when they needed a steady hand: a Bronx political aide who didn’t trust the vaccines she was promoting, an elementary teacher in Manhattan’s Chinatown whose students were viewed with suspicion by people afraid of the Asian flu and Mr. Presti, who spent months looking for help or for answers while his work life and his dreams for the future fell apart. In November he and his partner kept their bar open past the 10 p.m. curfew mandated by the city. Soon after, they declared their business an “autonomous zone.” He went on Fox News to express his frustration about little guys getting clobbered by big government, being forced to sacrifice their livelihood. Fed up with institutions that wouldn’t help him, he grew distrustful of scientific authorities and impatient with fellow citizens who seemed too weak to question those in power. At some point, Mr. Presti started calling himself a freedom fighter.

The very different people I spoke with that year all had one thing in common: a feeling that in the wake of Covid, all the larger institutions they had been taught to trust had failed them. At the most precarious times in their lives, they found there was no system in place to help.

Nearly four years later, the situation is, if anything, worse.

Nursing homes across the country, where poor labor conditions were linked to higher Covid mortality levels, remain understaffed, leaving old, frail residents more vulnerable than they should be. Hunger and food insecurity remain wrenching emergencies. Students haven’t fully returned to school. Congress passed the Child Poverty Reduction Act of 2021, one of the most effective antipoverty measures in decades. Then a year later, Congress ended it, pushing some five million young people back into extreme financial need.

When everything was uncertain and everyone’s future was on the line, we walked right up to the precipice of a moral breakthrough, and then we turned back.

Look at the way we all accustomed ourselves to the term “essential worker,” an ostensible term of respect that instead condemned people to work in manifestly dangerous conditions. The adoption of that term made visible something we now cannot unsee: In the United States the people we rely on most to keep our world functioning are the people we treated as disposable.

If social isolation wasn’t the core problem — most of the people I interviewed that year said they felt connected to friends and family, however far away they were — we might call the bigger problem structural isolation: abandoned by employers, deprived of shared purpose, denied care. The combined effect sent a strong message that individual lives weren’t worth as much anymore. (Did elected officials take to the airwaves and suggest that old people sacrifice themselves to save the economy? Yes, that really happened.)

People treated one another accordingly. We all remember the viral videos of people screaming at one another in supermarkets and on public transportation. Violent crime spiked. Even reckless driving surged — but it happened only in the United States.

The reasons for that American exceptionalism become only more urgent in an election year, when, as in a public health crisis, presidents can try to bring people together or try to turn them against one another. And they can convey a powerful message about whose lives matter.

By 2021, Mr. Presti had been arrested twice for defying city laws and had become something of a celebrity. When we spoke early that year, he told me that he and his partner were not “far-right guys.” But soon he was on social media telling followers, “Don’t give up your guns. Ever” and advising “ALL EYES ON ARIZONA AUDIT.” That October, when the mayor of New York announced new vaccine mandates for city employees, he wrote: “We’re currently in a cold war and we are the soldiers with our very way of life under attack. Don’t expect anyone to come save you. We are the front lines. We are the defenders of liberty.”

At an early point in our conversations, he had friended me on Facebook. Then I found myself unfriended, and he stopped responding to my messages and calls. His last activity on Twitter was in December 2022, when he reposted an article shared by the right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza alleging that Michelle Obama helped get Mr. Trump kicked off the platform.

A few weeks ago, I decided to reach out to Mr. Presti again. I wanted to learn about how things look to him these days and how he has rebuilt his life. We’re both New Yorkers; maybe now, with the bitter fights over bar closings and vaccine mandates many years behind us, we could find common ground again.

I sent Mr. Presti a couple of messages but got no reply. I called, with the same result. I tracked down his former business partner, who said he’d pass along my message. I thanked him and wished him luck.

I don’t know why Mr. Presti chose not to reply to me. He might just have more pressing matters to attend to. But the lack of resolution feels fitting, in a way, for a relationship that taught me so much about how this country failed people in 2020 and how those problems continue. I hope he and I will reconnect someday; for now, the silence is a dispiriting reminder that in America and even my own great city, social divisions have deepened. Today, as we barrel into the 2024 elections, the wounds of 2020 remain open, our conflicts unresolved. And the cold war Mr. Presti warned about may soon come to a boil.

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