The COVID-19 pandemic is obviously one of the worst events to have struck humanity in modern history. In the coming days, the global death toll will exceed 2 million – and that, of course, is just a part of the story. In addition to the human lives that it has taken directly, the virus has ruined or damaged the lives of millions more – through the lasting health impacts on many who contracted it and survived, the terrible psychological toll it has exacted throughout society and, of course, the enormous economic devastation it has wreaked.
Part of the explanation for this dreadful situation lies in the vexing nature of the coronavirus itself. As FiveThirtyEight.com pollster Nate Silver observed during a Dec. 28 podcast discussion, the coronavirus posed (and poses) an especially difficult challenge for elected leaders.
If, for instance, the virus had been as wildly contagious as some other viruses, it might well have already raced uncontrollably through the population. It could have infected a huge percentage of humanity by now – a result that would have been truly horrific, but that would quite possibly have already elicited something akin to the much-discussed phenomenon of “herd immunity.”
If on the other hand, the spread of the virus could have been readily checked through relatively modest interventions – as Silver puts it, through directives to merely “wear masks and close bars” – it would have been much easier to secure public acceptance and cooperation.
As it turned out, however, the virus put leaders “between a rock and a hard place.” It was and is containable, but only with a tremendous amount of concerted effort, organization, and public cooperation over an extended period – something the Trump administration proved utterly incapable of pulling off.
And so, here we are, nearly a year into the crisis and still grappling with questions of how and when to implement basic public health precautions, even as the death toll and infection rates continue to soar.
The happy and near-miraculous long-term solution to the current crisis lies, of course, with the widespread and rapid-as-possible deployment of vaccines – which, despite numerous flubs and snafus, looks as if it will actually be accomplished in the coming months.
In the meantime, however, two overarching lessons from the past year stand out and deserve our attention.
The first concerns how we weather the extremely dark weeks and months on the immediate horizon. Simply put, we have no option but to hunker down and redouble our efforts to implement strict public health policies.
Yes, the damage will be significant. The economy will struggle. Students will fall even further behind. Societal mental health will suffer.
But all those options remain vastly superior to the alternative: millions of new and preventable deaths. Especially with the light at the end of the tunnel having become visible thanks to the deployment of highly effective vaccines, now is no time to let down our guard.
The combination of strict public health rules and, one hopes, aggressive new federal relief programs (ideally funded in part by surtaxes on the super wealthy who have fared so well over the last year) offer the promise of sustaining the American people until the sunlight of an overarching societal recovery dawns later this year.
The second lesson relates to how we prepare for and avert such crises in the future, and it goes like this:
Sometimes freedom and liberty are about more than low taxes and small government. Yes, lower taxes are nice, but ultimately, they’re not good for much when the basic public structures that knit together our society are so torn and threadbare as to be ineffective.
We’ve learned this lesson yet again during the pandemic as we’ve watched the federal government fail repeatedly in basic functions, like keeping us safe and the economy up and running.
None of this is to say that responding to a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic would ever be simple or easy. Fashioning a coherent response to such a threat for a diverse and sprawling nation of 300 million would be a herculean challenge under the best of circumstances.
But without robust and well-funded public structures and systems – in public health, education, healthcare, the social safety net, transportation, and environmental protection – and a deft and determined national leadership that believes in such infrastructure and knows how to use it, the task will always be vastly more difficult.
The bottom line: With such systems, everyone has at least a real shot at enjoying the blessings of a free society. Without them, even the wealthy can find themselves prisoners in their own homes – no matter how low their taxes might be.
Hopefully, our elected leaders will take these lessons to heart in the months and years ahead.