On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. This magazine published a cover-to-cover special issue that week—our last in the office—called “The Lost Year.” At the time, though, fear of the disease was leavened with hope that it might bring people together. In one of his eagerly watched press conferences, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called Covid a “great equalizer.” So did Madonna, who released a video of herself mostly immersed in a rose-petal-strewn bathtub saying, “We’re all in the same boat, and if the ship goes down we’re all going down together.”
The ship went down, all right, but we didn’t all go down together. Covid amplified inequality—by race as well as income, gender, occupation, and nationality. For many, the lost year threatens to become a lost decade akin to America’s doldrums after the deep recession of 2007-09 or Japan’s long slump after its asset bubble popped in 1991.
The cumulative future damage is likely to be even greater than the havoc Covid wrought in its first, acute year. Doctors coined the term “long hauler” to describe patients with lingering health problems; society itself will be a long hauler. And the least-advantaged will suffer the most in damaged health, derailed schooling, and wrecked careers.
On the plus side, Covid has stimulated fresh thinking about ways to protect the most vulnerable. The Philippines used its universal health insurance, which was enacted in 2019, to cover testing for and treatment of Covid for everyone, including the 40% of Filipinos working in the informal sector. Rwanda, fearing the virus’s impact on its poorest citizens, used robots to take temperatures and drones to deliver medicines. In the U.S., President Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief program expands tax credits for low-income Americans with children, bolsters unemployment insurance, pays out $1,400 checks, and expands rental assistance and food stamps.
The pandemic made long-present inequalities impossible to ignore. “A lot has gotten worse, but there’s one thing that’s gotten better, and that’s the opportunity for this nation and indeed the world to address equality seriously,” says Dayna Bowen Matthew, dean of George Washington University Law School and author of Just Medicine: A Cure for Racial Inequality in American Health Care. “It’s almost a reprieve, a mulligan, a do-over,” she says. “As a society we want to be better than this, and we have concrete evidence, reasons why and how to be better than this.”
Thirty-six Americans had died of Covid in the week that Bloomberg Businessweek published “The Lost Year” cover. The death toll is now over half a million in the U.S. and more than 2.5 million worldwide. So it really was a lost year. But for the lucky ones, the loss was felt at a distance—sad stories on the news, forced separation from friends and family. For many there were offsetting advantages, such as working from home for full pay while the rising stock market fattened their retirement accounts. Federal relief dollars benefited a lot of people who didn’t need the money.
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