One Year On: The Toll and the Lessons of the Pandemic

We must build back from the pandemic better than before, lay the foundations for the strong, durable, and broad-based recovery we need, and promote a more just and equitable society.

Robert Luckey, a COVID ICU nurse, receives his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 at Memorial Hermann Hospital–Texas Medical Center in Houston.

Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP

A year ago this week, the World Health Organization formally designated the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, sounding the alarm for the modern plague that has since killed more than 2.6 million people and upended lives and livelihoods worldwide.

In this country, more than 526,000 people have died from the virus, one every minute, on average, for the past year. That’s more than we lost in World War II and subsequent wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—combined.

Some 22 million people lost their jobs when the pandemic shut down much of the economy last spring, and half of those still can’t find work.

Millions more have seen their incomes slashed, and some 11 million households have fallen far enough behind in rent or mortgage payments that they’re at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure or eviction.

The virus has been devastating for every community: one in every three Americans has lost someone close to them.

The pandemic and its effects, though, have been disproportionately harder on low-income communities, Black people, Indigenous People, and other people of color, highlighting yet again the injustice and inequity fostered by generations of systemic racism.

A year on, and with new leadership in the White House, signs of hope and relief are emerging across the country, amid continuing struggle and loss.

The rates of new infections and deaths have begun to fall. More than 60 million of us have received a coronavirus vaccine, and distribution is rapidly ramping upward. And President Biden is poised to sign into law his $1.9 trillion emergency relief package, delivering early on a pledge to fight the pandemic head on, help the people who need help the most, and keep cash-strapped states and localities from having to shut down essential services.

We’re far from being out of the woods, but the Biden administration is acting on the lessons we’ve learned at immeasurable cost and setting the table for long-term recovery and needed change. That is also our charge for the year ahead, as we work together to defeat the pandemic, get our people back to work, dismantle racist structures, and confront the rising costs and mounting dangers of the climate crisis.

If there’s one thing this year has taught us, it’s that these are not separate crises. They are interwoven, they intersect around our lives, and that’s how we need to address them.

As the coronavirus began to spread like a global wildfire, no country on earth was better prepared than the United States to prevent or respond to the worst public health crisis in a century. But yet, with 4 percent of the world’s population, we’ve suffered 20 percent of the world’s coronavirus deaths, an indelible indictment of failed leadership during the initial 10 months of the pandemic.

In the same year, the brutal killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others drove millions of Black Lives Matter supporters to the streets. Meanwhile, record-breaking storms and hurricanes ravaged the Gulf Coast, sudden derechos swept across drought-devastated heartland ranches and farms, and wildfires burned enough western land to cover the state of New Jersey.

As with the coronavirus, these and other impacts of climate change inflict disproportionate hazard and harm on low-income communities, Black people, and other people of color. And so the protests merged with the pandemic, economic turmoil, and widening climate crisis to underscore the racial injustice and inequity that’s been baked into our nation from its birth.

An MTA worker hands out free hand sanitizer and face masks in the subway during morning rush hour in New York City.

Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

After both contracting the virus and dying from it at higher rates than their white counterparts, people of color are now having a harder time getting vaccinated. That’s systemic racism.

Economic racism leaves Black people more likely to work in jobs that expose them to the virus in the first place and more than twice as likely as white people to be at risk of eviction or foreclosure.

Environmental racism means they’re also disproportionately exposed to the air pollution from factories, refineries, power plants, and highways that aggravates asthma and other respiratory conditions that can compromise the body’s ability to fight off the coronavirus.

And institutional racism means they’re less likely to have access to quality health care and related services.

A generation of students have spent most of the past year in a largely futile effort to keep up from home. Students of color, though, and those from low-income communities where internet service and related resources are limited, are rapidly losing further ground to those who entered the pandemic with a substantial leg up.

The pandemic has also spread a dangerous strain of xenophobia. It triggered a frightening and inexcusable rise in verbal abuse and physical assaults against Asian people in the United States (and internationally) after former President Trump waged a concerted campaign to blame China for the pain the pandemic has caused, in an effort to distract the country from his lethal failure to lead.

It didn’t have to be this bad.

As the pandemic spread, however, President Trump and his administration dismissed the medical science, scoffed at the counsel of experts, and refused to put together a national response equal to the challenge. Much as he and his administration have ignored the growing peril of climate change, fanned the flames of racial division, and mocked sound efforts to address those ills, so, too, did Trump deny the risks the pandemic posed to the country and fail to coordinate an effective response.

That’s the scorched landscape President Biden inherited when he took the oath of office on a January day when promise was rendered in poetry by a woman just shy of her 23rd birthday.

“Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished,” Amanda Gorman assured us in her stunning inaugural poem, later affirming that “being American is more than a pride we inherit; it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”

Biden took note.

He’s acting on sound science and real solutions, not nonsense and wishful thinking. He’s rallying the nation around effective plans, not responding to threats with bromides and lies. He’s working to unite us around shared purpose, not throwing out chaff to distract from failure.

And he’s devoted the first six weeks of his presidency to shepherding his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan through Congress, where House and Senate Democrats passed it without the support of a single Republican.

The plan is historic by any measure.

It’s more than twice as large, for starters, as the $787 billion stimulus package President Obama signed into law 12 years ago, after the Great Recession wiped out $11 trillion in household wealth and threw 10 percent of the country out of work.

Liza Collins, a travel nurse from Louisiana, administers a COVID-19 test at the Rutherford County Health Department, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Like Obama’s package, Biden’s is targeted to provide real help where it’s needed most.

With frontline health care workers stressed to the brink of the breaking point, the package provides $160 billion in direct aid to nurses, doctors, and first responders; assistance to expand testing and tracing, speed the delivery of vaccines, and set up emergency vaccination clinics.

With millions of households trying to pencil out the way forward amid financial uncertainty, the plan provides stimulus checks of up to $1,400 for workers earning $80,000 a year or less.

With more than 10 million Americans out of work, the plan extends through September the weekly $300 checks to supplement unemployment benefits that had been due to expire this week.

And, with some 400,000 businesses shuttered by the pandemic nationwide, the package provides funding to help small businesses keep their doors open and the staff paid.

As of January, state and local governments had cut 1.3 million jobs—mostly teachers, school bus drivers, and other public school support staff—with additional essential services threatened by deepening budget woes. Biden’s rescue package addresses those shortfalls by providing $370 billion in aid for state, local, and tribal governments.

Building on previous federal pandemic relief estimated to have kept 13 million Americans out of poverty, Biden’s American Rescue package does more to strengthen the safety net for low-income families than any single federal measure in a generation.

It includes $100 billion in direct payments, which have the potential to cut child poverty nearly in half by providing most families with monthly checks of up to $300 per child for the coming year. It provides $45 billion for people who need help paying their mortgage, rent, or utility bills.

It will make health care coverage more affordable by increasing subsidies for plans under the Affordable Care Act and expanding the pool of people eligible to participate. It provides about $5 billion to help farmers of color keep their farms. And, with seven million children not getting enough to eat, it adds $12 billion to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Call on the Biden administration to take bold action in its first 100 days

This is a package that puts people first, with urgently needed aid to protect our health, financial security, and well-being while we work together to get the economy back on its feet.

In the coming weeks, the administration and Congress will work to promote exactly that, through a package of longer-term investments to help us build back by making our people more prosperous, our communities more resilient, our economy more sustainable, and our society more equitable.

That starts with a solid down payment on the $2 trillion in clean energy investment that Biden has pledged to set the country on the path to getting 100 percent of our electricity without coal, oil, or gas by 2035.

When the pandemic hit, there were nearly 3.4 million people across the country working to help us do just that, at jobs paying, on average, 28 percent above the median wage. They’re making our cars, homes, and workplaces more efficient, helping us to get more clean power from the wind and sun and to modernize our electricity grid and storage systems.

By advancing that work with sound investments, forward-leaning policies, and a whole-of-government approach to the mission, we can create millions more good-paying jobs in communities throughout the country.

We can clean up our cars and dirty power plants, reducing the tailpipe and smokestack pollution that’s driving the climate crisis and making our people sick. We can build the infrastructure we need to ensure safe drinking water for every person in this country. And we can meet Biden’s pledge to conserve 30 percent of our lands and federal ocean waters by 2030 in order to address the collapse of species and strengthen the ability of wetlands, forests, and croplands to naturally absorb carbon from the atmosphere and lock it away in healthy soils.

Poets and astronomers still struggle to take the measure of a year—525,600 minutes, the late composer Jonathan Larson affirmed, “in daylight, in sunsets, in cups of coffee.” This past year has been a little different from most, reminding us just how precious each moment is, and exacting a toll beyond measure.

We honor that loss, and hallow the memory of those we grieve, by learning the lessons of the pandemic, resolving to do better in every crisis we face, and taking care of those who need help most.

That’s how we rise from the ashes of the pandemic better than before, lay the foundations for the strong, durable, and broad-based recovery we need, and promote a more just and equitable society. 

About the Authors

Mitchell Bernard

President and Chief Counsel

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