COVID retrospective: what has surprised you?

Now that we have been through more than a year of COVID, I thought it would be interesting to look back and see how things have turned out differently than expected. Here are some of my thoughts.

A) I never expected things would still be closed and I would still be working from home after a year passed. Back in March 2020, I thought COVID would either be snuffed out or burn through the whole population within several months. I didn’t anticipate that we would find a balance between remote work and partial opening, moderate suffering and moderate protection of health, all under government mandates that were sufficiently suppressive to greatly disrupt life but not so bad as to provoke massive rebellion. I’m not sure this outcome will have been best in the long run.

B) Closing schools in March 2020 was understandable considering the appearance of a strange new disease, but I was absolutely sure that no matter what else was closed, public schools would be open again in fall because otherwise how would kids get an education and be supervised while parents worked? To my astonishment, public schools have remained pretty much closed for more than a year, despite the abundant evidence that remote education does not work well, especially for the less privileged. My conclusion is that we have truly become a post-natal society. It also appears that the career mom is now an archetype of the past, and I expect going forward we will hear fewer calls for government-provided after-school programs and daycare to aid working mothers because the corporate norm will instead become childlessness. I additionally expect public schooling will go into decline as a social institution because who can believe the rhetoric about professionalism and service to the community when the teachers collectively go AWOL for a year?

C) The surprising bright spot is the rapid development of vaccines (Operation Warp Speed), for which I hope President Trump will eventually receive credit. In anticipation of later points, I will note that this was accomplished by recognizing that the cost of the pandemic was so great that covering the costs to develop ten vaccines in the hope that one would work would pay off a thousand-fold. Ten years from now, this may be viewed as the most effective response to the pandemic since even those countries that successfully eliminated COVID within their borders cannot safely reopen without the rest of the world vaccinated.

D) The inflexibility of the medical establishment, especially within the federal agencies, has far surpassed my lowest expectations. The past fifteen months have demonstrated that there is enormous capacity within the United States to research COVID and develop solutions, but at every turn the FDA and CDC have slowed this down and placed roadblocks in order to slavishly follow “peacetime” protocols and maintain control. We could have had widespread testing and vaccines several months earlier (thus saving hundreds of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars) if only the federal regulators would govern by principle that in the face of a devastating pandemic, “good enough now” is vastly preferable to “closer to perfect later”. It is troubling that so many people view following a bureaucratic procedure as the same as being scientific and ethical.

E) Considering the obvious failures and grave mistakes of the medical and public health authorities, I’ve been surprised that so little has been done to hold people to account, even if only in the court of public opinion. At first, I attributed this to Trump being President since the widespread hostility towards him by the Establishment would make it difficult for Trump to reform the federal agencies and instead make him the scapegoat for all failures. But now I realize that over the past several decades no one has ever been held to account for manifest errors in military intervention, financial regulation, economic policy, etc. This does not bode well for the future of the America.

F) After lockdowns, mass layoffs, and the continued closure of so many business, I expected substantial economic devastation. Yet state and local tax revenues are not down, and the stock and housing markets are way up. How can this reconciled to reports that a large number of people are months behind on rent or mortgage payments, or homeless or short on food? Are most people actually doing fine financially? Or did the federal stimulus payments make everything okay? Or has the hit to landlords/banks/federal debt/etc not been counted in the numbers yet? Or are a large number of people simply economically superfluous such that if they and their jobs disappeared, it wouldn’t be noticed? I don’t get it.

G) I feel sad for all the businesses and organizations going under after a year of mandatory closure that provide meaningful or at least enjoyable personal experiences – not just restaurants but also Christian camps, colleges, museums, zoos, aquariums, orchestras, amusement parks, theaters, and more. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more protest. Or is Zoom and Netflix now a suitable substitute for all that?

H) Masks. Of all hills, why was this the one to die on?

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Stupendous summary, dear brother. I wish you’d rejigger it a little for a Warhorn post, and then do another post for Warhorn filling out D. Any possibility? It would serve the Church well. Love,

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I suppose my biggest surprise has been the politicization of any proposed medications/vaccines to treat or prevent Covid. Due to this, it sometimes seems to me that no matter who proposes or develops such treatments, half of the population is not going to accept it. And the media has certainly played a role in this.

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Great question! I, too, did not expect it to be like this a year out. Some additional things that surprised me:

  1. How many of my relationships were based on not just proximity, but repeated, unplanned physical presence. I don’t see many nearby neighbors anymore because we aren’t at our kids’ basketball games together, stopping by each other’s houses unannounced, etc. Friendships built around shared activity (like taking kids to the playground) are absent too.

  2. How much when, during the initial lockdown, the only way I could talk to another person was through video chat, it clarified how important certain friendships are to me. If I was going to initiate a video chat, it might not be from someone I usually saw regularly, but a friend who now lives out of state.

  3. Speaking on video chat, while it is a sad replacement for in person relationships, I’m surprised at how well it works for other things. I’ve took an online music class this summer, and there would have been no way for me to have done it otherwise. It was great, and way better than I expected for online. I’m told that participation in things like PTA and town hall meetings are way up, and that professionals who previously had to fly around to meet with clients are saving time by meeting from home. My kids’ homeschool co-op used zoom during the winter, and while I’m glad we are back in person now, it worked fine for them. It will be interesting to see how commutes change going forward.

  4. I thought I already knew that America is very divided, but the pandemic really clarified it further for me. By the summer, Disney World was open, and mass protests were still happening everywhere, but there was serious discussion in my family about what we would do when a certain immediate family member died because he had 15 children and grandchildren but only 10 were allowed at a graveside service in the state. (Thankfully restrictions were lifted when it happened so we could all mourn together.) It felt like parallel universes. It still feels like that to some extent,

  5. Similarly, I’ve been surprised at how differently individuals within just one community are handling things. I know people who basically only take minimal, legally required precautions, and people who haven’t been in any indoor space besides their own home in a year. It doesn’t seem to correlate with their medical risk, general risk tolerance, or Romans 13 convictions. I would not have correctly guessed some responses to the threat of Covid.

  6. I’m really surprised that the cognitive dissonance of the elite insisting on lockdowns while the poor assume all the risk of working for Instacart, Uber Eats, and fast food hasn’t boiled over. I went to the grocery store today and I’d estimate that about 2/3 of the other shoppers there were Instacart shoppers. I wonder what kind of jobs they were doing in 2019 and how they feel about the new normal. I wonder if they’re bitter at the government employees who work from home but received a chance to get the vaccine before they did. I wonder if Instacart will be their new normal, or is this just a phase.

  7. I don’t watch sports unless my kids are playing, and I didn’t realize what a calming/distracting effect professional sports has on our nation. I felt the change in mood immediately when baseball restarted. I thought that only happened in Civilization.

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The lack of economic devastation, which many “Covid doves” warned about and were afraid of, is interesting, but also welcome. I’m glad things are not that bad. It makes the decision to lock down look reasonable in retrospect.

I wonder if part of it is the temporary suspension of rent and mortgage payments, enforced in many cases by law. At some point, that period of forgiveness will end, and then what will happen?

The economic effects of the shutdowns have fallen heavily on the working poor, the people most likely to work in retail and restaurants and not be able to do their jobs from home. At the same time, Congress approved expanded unemployment benefits so much so that, anecdotally, people tell me local restaurants are having trouble finding help.

Housing prices where we live have risen significantly. This is good for owners, but not good for young families trying to buy their first home.

The stock market and housing highs can’t go on forever. Are we in a bubble? It seems like we are. On the other hand, you could say there is still a lot of untapped demand out there that, once the pandemic comes to an end, will be unleashed. It may actually turn out that you can, in a sense, turn the economy off and turn it back on again without as much trouble as many feared.

I’m familiar with anti-maskers but I also know several folks in my circle who wear their masks (with some complaining) but will refuse the vaccine. They’re all Trump supporters. Polling shows that evangelicals are spurning the vaccines at about the same rate as Blacks, which tells you something about the place of evangelicals in our society.

That said, I intend to get the vaccine as soon as I can. The cost/benefit analysis is a no-brainer.

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First of all, great question, Joel.

This is an interesting observation. I wonder if society is going to basically bifurcate into traditional folks who fill up minivans with kids with moms who stay home/work part-time/flexible jobs, as contrasted with sterile women/families who dedicate themselves to their careers, their cats and travel. The Millennial generation is already well down the road to failing to form families. The oldest Millennials turn 41 this year, and their stats are downright depressing.

I thought it was impossible to be more cynical about teacher’s unions, but the level of chutzpah from team #RedForEd has been shocking.

Our country seems to have operated in an open loop without any kind of meaningful accountability or feedback for quite some time. How many people who flogged for the Iraq war still go on TV and tell us how our country should run?

For me the main surprises are actually somewhat dissonant. I’m both surprised at how united the country’s response to Covid has been, and surprised at how little crisis management capacity our government showed.

I have watched three major crises now as an adult: 9/11, the financial crisis, and now Covid. The level of national unity and national response in the wake of 9/11 feels as quaint now as Mayberry. I cannot imagine a united American response to any crisis. For the financial crisis, Americans strongly diverged on the proper response, but Nancy Pelosi’s Congress handed George W. Bush and his Treasury Secretary enormous powers to unilaterally manage the financial sector. When Covid came, I’m actually surprised that Pelosi’s Congress even passed a single Covid relief bill for Trump to sign, never mind two. The fact that things like masks, HCQ and “China virus” were politicized made me sad, but didn’t surprise me at all.

On the other hand, I was shocked at how poorly the government in general, and in particular the medical bureaucracy has handled the pandemic, from top to bottom and beginning to end. The lack of stockpiled PPE was shocking to me. This would be on my top 5 list of things to have if I were in charge of pandemic prep, and I know nothing about pandemics. The guidance to get a flu shot (!!!) at a time when China was locking down Wuhan showed a startling lack of imagination. The vigor with which they pursued bureaucratic rules at a time when they should have been waiving regs left and right was shocking to me. The degree to which they continue to cling to policies like mask mandates and lockdowns in the face of an absence of evidence that they actually help anything has been shocking to me. These may have been reasonable measures when we didn’t know what we were dealing with, but by mid-May it’s been clear to me that general lockdowns have nowhere near enough benefit in this particular pandemic to justify their cost. Mask mandates, likewise, seem to have much less benefit than their societal cost.

At seemingly every turn, the health bureaucracies have stood in the path of controlling this pandemic in a reasonable way. Politicizing HCQ was appalling to me. Pfizer delaying its vaccine announcement until after the election was (is) shocking to me.

I have not been a libertarian for quite some time, but I am pretty confident that we would have had much better outcomes as a nation if Trump had locked the entire CDC, FDA and NIH in a federal prison a year ago and told everyone to disregard any regs or guidance from those agencies. It gives me no joy that our health bureaucracies performed this poorly in the midst of a crisis that they were seemingly designed to mitigate, but here we are.

Joel and Ben both mentioned surprise at the state of the economy, which I share. I’m surprised the economy could be stopped and rebooted as effectively as it has been, and while I have some explanations for why real estate and the stock market have done very well (this seems to be the pattern for where “quantitative easing”–printed money–goes over the last 10-15 years), it still surprised me to watch the stock market rebound as rapidly as it did last spring. (Regrettably, I did not have this theory about quantitative easing and the real estate and stock markets 12 months ago.)

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Here’s a helpful story from the New York Times about excess mortality from Covid 19.

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What do you have in mind? I’m pretty busy, but maybe I could expand on my point D. As one internet commenter pointed out, scientific and ethical protocols were made to serve man, not man to serve protocols, and my angle is that the regulators are being unscientific and unethical by insisting that protocols made for normal times be so strictly followed in a crisis time.

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Great post. My biggest surprise is the seeming inability of our economy to mass produce the most effective masks (N95s). I would have thought the federal government could have come up with something like buying the IP of companies like 3M, etc. and released them for public use. I figure if we had plentiful effective masks then the mask jihadists could have worn them in public without worrying about what other people were doing.

Regarding the economic impacts: I suspect that the costs are hidden in measure that aren’t as simple as GDP, the housing market, or the stock market. The uber rich have become more so. The professional class was already well suited to work remotely. The service class and small business owners not so much. My understanding is that food pantries have been very busy and that a majority of those the patrons have never required service like that in the past.

I’m also glad for one thing: the teacher’s unions are who we thought they were and hopefully that’s becoming more obvious to all.

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Read this.

Regarding teachers/unions/strikes: from my humble Facebook page it seems like the exact opposite is happening. Those who have said hardly a word about the “value of teachers” have come racing to the front in numbers that are hard to stomach. All the while many of my conservative, Republican friends have become further entrenched into the mindset that massive public spending on schools is the only way out of the problem. Thus, the current monies spent are not nearly enough to give the schools a fighting chance.

I wish it were not so…but it seems that many (most?) of my friends who were adamantly “pro-Trump” are also maddeningly “pro-school.” Just as the MAGA faithful have doubled down beyond the inauguration of Biden, they have tripled down on their pledge to make sure more and more dollars are spent on the great god of America: Education.

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Ironically, Governor Schwarzenegger had the foresight back in 2006 to create a surge capacity stockpile (including mobile hospitals and medical gear) for the express purpose of preparing the state for a pandemic like COVID-19. This was subsequently dismantled by Governor Brown to save money.

The thing that surprises me most after the fact is that while everyone is arguing and debating about the effectiveness of cloth masks, they still haven’t made N-95 masks available. I would have expected to see a proliferation based on demand. Somehow, the pandemic turned an item that could readily be purchased at a drug store or hardware store into some sort of contraband. The very thing that would unquestionably be effective at reducing spread.

My point about quarantines, were that they were only necessary when there was no supply for antiseptic, respirators, or gloves for people to protect themselves. Well we can get antiseptic abundantly, praise God, and gloves…but actual respiratory protection remains elusive. I’m not saying cloth masks are useless, but they aren’t a protective barrier from others.

In my opinions availability of N-95 masks would give people real options as to how to live their lives without necessarily depending on the hygiene of others. But alas, we are only half way there, and we still have to argue whether to mask or not and whose ultimately responsible when someone gets sick.

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My understanding is that fomite transmission of Covid is basically nil, but that only makes the lack of N95 masks the more distressing. This is not the same country that won WWII.

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This was the first publicly available N95 certified mask I was able to find and it was about a month or so ago.

Anything, really.

I’m not picking up on what you’re inferring. What does it tell us about the place of evangelicals in our society?

We’re entering into the place where we might start giving credence to systemic discrimination.

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What Joseph said.

Ah, it makes sense now. Thanks.