How the Pandemic Has Really Changed Us

20 Jan, 2022


How the Pandemic Has Really Changed Us

January 2022

In March 2020, just as workers were sent home from their offices, Politico asked more than 30 “smart, macro thinkers” to weigh in on COVID-19 and its long-term consequences. Their responses allowed Politico to offer “our best stab at a guide to the unknown ways that society — government, healthcare, the economy, our lifestyles and more — will change.” The results are edifying, though not necessarily for the reasons one might have guessed.

One of these macro thinkers predicted we will be “genuflecting” before doctors and nurses, saying, “Thank you for your service,” and giving voice to “a new kind of patriotism.” Peter T. Coleman, the author of a book on the need to overcome “toxic polarization” said we will finally break out of our “50-plus year pattern of escalating political and cultural polarization,” as we move “toward greater national solidarity.” We’ll see a new “ascendance of human goodness — altruism, compassion and generosity of spirit and action.”

The author of The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols, thought the pandemic might actually lead to a new appreciation of experts, especially “medical professionals like Anthony Fauci.” Another big thinker agreed that “we can expect that public respect for expertise in public health and epidemics to be at least partially restored.” A sociologist who has written on fighting polarization says that rather than becoming “less communal,” we might well “rediscover the better version of ourselves.”

So — how’s all this working out for us?

With COVID-19 variants requiring new protocols, and with midterm elections looming, we seem more polarized than ever. A deluge of information, misinformation and outright disinformation has led to less, rather than more, confidence in experts, and what looks like a deepening distrust of government leaves us further removed than ever from “a spirit of self-sacrifice for the common good.”

How we will come out of this, of course, is anybody’s guess, but those who are living through it — rather than blue-sky speculating in advance — see hard-won cause for hope, however unlike those of Politico’s “macro thinkers.” We know more now than we did then, in all fairness, and no one could predict with any accuracy what the future held — or holds.

‘Unprecedented’ Polarization

“This level of polarization is unprecedented,” says Dr. Julie Morita, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. “I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years as a public health officer. This polarization has been made all the more frustrating, in recent months, because alliances we once took for granted have begun to fray. The stalemate over in-person schooling in Chicago, for example, pitted a teachers’ union — historically a reliable ally of Democrats — against a Democratic mayor.

What happened in Chicago is heartbreaking,” Morita says. “It was needless because the Los Angeles experience shows that there are measures that can be taken to protect the health of the children as well as that of faculty and staff. One encouraging fact in all of this is that we now have tools in place — vaccinations, for example — that we simply did not have in March of 2020. And that makes it all the more frustrating because the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and public health agencies don’t have the public support they need to do the job, for all kinds of reasons.”

A ‘Deluge’ of Data

Amy Walter, the editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report, says that part of the erosion of trust in public health agencies — and public officials generally — is an unfortunate consequence of a development that otherwise would be something to celebrate. That’s the unlimited amount of data available thanks to the internet and social media, not to mention opinion and analysis. “We’re up against a deluge of information,” Walter says.

More information is good in some ways, but too much can make life difficult “whether you are a national politician, a county commissioner or a school board member,” Walter says. “You’re trying to make decisions about important issues at the same time there are all these people who are purposely fomenting distrust or are putting out information they genuinely believe is helpful. It is hard to make policy in the face of all this distrust, especially when people are basing their beliefs from a neighbor who knows someone who is a nurse or something they saw on Facebook.”

This difficulty is complicated by the fact that the science that should be the basis of decisions about public health changes over time. “That is the nature of science,” Walter says. “Science evolves, and those who are basing their recommendations on what the best science seems to suggest find themselves accused of dishonesty, or worse: ‘They told us this yesterday, and today they’re telling us something completely different!’”

Policy ‘Meat Grinder’

Meanwhile, the pace of change makes it difficult for policy to keep up. “Policy is supposed to go through a meat grinder — legislative, regulatory, the courts,” Walter says. “But by the time a policy has gotten through the meat grinder, conditions have changed.”

Finally, reality rarely conforms to our neat categories. “As we’ve seen in Chicago, alliances that we had come to take for granted — that unions are aligned with Democrats, for example — break down,” Walter says. “For decades we’ve also assumed that Republicans support business. Now we’re seeing conservatives attacking ‘Big Pharma.’ It’s hard to build enduring alliances when this is happening.”

Crises reveal deep divisions in any society, and these can surprise us. “It might be tempting to assume that we’ll all pull together at a time like this, but that’s not what’s happening,” says Council President Doug Pinkham. “America has a deeply individualistic tradition, and it has asserted itself during this pandemic in ways that can be unsettling. Because a lot of these individualistic people are suspicious of federal mandates about masking or vaccinations, for example, some of them deny that COVID is a problem and that masks and vaccinations even work. They become defiant — just as more militant people on the other side refuse to take seriously studies that show that some vaccinations might have harmful side effects on some people. And that is one form this polarization takes: Both sides become more strident and more convinced that those on ‘the other side’ aren’t just wrong but are acting from bad motives.”

What is remarkable — and encouraging — is that we’ve made any progress at all given these tensions in society. “I believe, going forward, we should just realize that there’s no easy way to solve the problem of this deep-seated distrust and bake it into the way we do policy,” Walter says. “People are smarter than we give them credit for, and ultimately, we will find that they are less interested in these political fights that go on day after day, than they are in what will keep them and their loved ones safe.”

Putting Partisanship Aside

We should never forget that in 2020, Walter says, Congress “was able to act quickly, in a bipartisan way, to pass legislation to deal with the economic consequences of the pandemic, in terms of businesses shutting down, people losing their jobs, and child poverty. Congress was able to put partisanship aside to respond to a crisis. What Congress did might not have been perfect, but it was good enough to prevent far worse things from happening, and that’s important.”

Meeting the Moment

Angela Riemer, vice president of federal government relations at Pfizer, sees the speedy development of vaccines as a bright spot. “There’s no way, when we all left the office on that day in March 2020, that we knew we’d be part of the way our society has met this moment,” Riemer says. “I’m extremely proud of the contribution we’ve made, and it’s been an adrenaline rush to be part of this since the work we do affects every household. As long as we’ve stuck to our core commitment — which is ‘breakthroughs that change patients’ lives’ — we’ve been able to remain true to our beliefs. In our role as communicators, we respond, educate and clarify issues before multiple audiences, which is not easy because the issues change day to day.”

Maintaining trust as new information emerges and issues change is no easy task. This is, as both Riemer and Morita suggest, a communications challenge. “Public health agencies — and the CDC most of all — must rebuild the trust it lost when, under President Trump, it was not allowed to take the leadership it should have,” Morita says. “As a result, other spokespersons — including Dr. [Anthony] Fauci — ended up explaining the crisis and how we needed to respond to it. This created a vacuum, and others filled it, including on social media, and conflicting claims made it difficult to implement policy.”

But this is also “a problem of funding,” Morita contends. “During public health emergencies, there is a surge in funding for public health agencies, which goes away when the emergency passes. This cycle of boom and bust doesn’t allow public health agencies to build up the infrastructure of laboratories and other resources they need to develop reliable data.”

The Way to Persuade

At the very least, we now know more about effective communications than we did in early 2020. “Organizations that succeed — including government agencies — will be those that understand that the way to persuade those who don’t agree with you is not to say, ‘Let me explain to you why you’re wrong,’ which simply does not work,” Pinkham says. “You have to understand where they are coming from and to connect with them on an emotional level. That’s another thing ‘the science’ supports. Sometimes I’m surprised by how little spokespersons for public health agencies seem to understand risk communications strategy.”

As we go forward, Pinkham says, “public affairs professionals and the organizations they represent will have to do a better job communicating with policymakers and the public. That is crucial to rebuilding trust for those that have lost it and maintaining it for those that still have it. And rebuilding trust is necessary to help us through this crisis and help us prepare for the next one.”

Riemer is encouraged by the extent to which the pandemic has deepened our understanding of innovation and the process of research and development. “There was a time, before COVID, that we had to explain R&D with every conversation we had, with policymakers and with the public,” she says. “We had to explain what goes into developing a new pharmaceutical product and the role of the FDA in its approval. We had to start from scratch.”

What the Public Understands

But today, because of the pandemic, the public follows “the development of vaccines and boosters and all of that in a way it didn’t before,” Riemer says. “The public understands, for example, what clinical trials are. People now have a much better understanding of the process of innovation, which really is the great American story. It’s exciting to be part of it, especially since members of Congress are so much more sophisticated about these issues than they were before. To us, who like to think we’re part of the long-term solution, this is cause for optimism.”

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