Two months ago, South Park, the famed 24-year-old irreverent cartoon, aired a COVID-19 vaccine special. Fittingly lampooning the issues with the vaccine rollout, the toll that the past year has taken on us, and the inability to fully return to our pre-pandemic normal.
As spring turns to summer, and the winter surge of cases begins to fade from our memories, this episode has stuck with me. In the episode, the elderly who were eligible for the first shots of the vaccine were driving around partying again, while everyone else in town had to continue social distancing. Now as more and more Americans are able to join them, we face a question: just how close to a pre-pandemic normal can we get?
A major theme in the episode was that things cannot simply go back to the way they were before. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creative team behind South Park, use this as a meta-commentary on the show itself; that the old, explicitly edgy hijinks which characterized the early seasons of South Park could not be done anymore. The past few seasons and the first COVID-19 special strained the lead characters’ friendship and tore them apart, a metaphor for the political tensions we have suffered through since 2015.
As many have pointed out already, this inability to return to normalcy describes our post-COVID world as well.
In the 15 months since COVID-19 first broke into our national consciousness, we have focused almost exclusively on the risk posed by the virus. While COVID-19 has been deadly and precautions were necessary, the monomania that grew out of our laser focus on the virus was at times counterproductive.
Because COVID-19 was an ever-present threat in our minds, how we perceive our institutions now is shaped by how they responded to the pandemic. Institutions that once held respect have eroded that trust in the minds of many, and long-held norms have been broken. Some performed well, but many have not, and the erosion of that trust is likely to persist well into the future.
Early in our response to COVID-19, any semblance of fiscal restraint evaporated. Because of our strong non-pharmaceutical interventions last March, some form of aid to those prevented from working was necessary. However, the first COVID-19 stimulus was much larger than appropriate and still enjoyed broad support from Republicans. The GOP has been known for some time for talking a good game about fiscal responsibility and abandoning it once in power, but now most seem to have become unwilling even to consider the national debt. The 2009 stimulus package was derided as an irresponsible waste of money, yet it was much smaller than any of the COVID-19 stimulus packages.
Trust in public health agencies has fallen, with less than half of respondents saying that they trust most public health groups a great deal. While 52 percent trusted the CDC, only 37 percent of respondents trusted the FDA. A series of missteps, contradictions, and confused messaging has plagued public health agencies throughout the crisis. For instance, this spring the guidance for vaccinated people has evolved suddenly, without the underlying scientific knowledge changing, or explanation of an intended strategy for that evolution.
Despite the evidence of low spread in schools and teachers being among the first vaccinated, public schools remain largely closed. Teachers unions have fought hard to continue remote education, frustrating parents across the country. As a sign of just how deep these frustrations run, state legislatures have been passing school choice legislation at a record pace, as parents search for in-person alternatives.
While perceptions of the media have been split by partisan affiliation for some time, trust in the media is at an all-time low. A majority agree that the media are not objective and shade their coverage to support a partisan worldview. Inability to trust the media will complicate the final steps of our COVID-19 response, and our responses to any future crisis.
COVID-19 has exacerbated the trend of urban exodus that began before the pandemic. It is important not to overstate the size of the out-migration, but the largest and most expensive cities like New York and San Francisco have seen a substantial number of people leave. Some causes include the fear of the virus, a desire to avoid the strict NPIs, the cost of living, losing a job, and the newly-acknowledged ability to work remotely. The permanence of this trend still remains to be seen, but the impact of this migration will be felt well into the future.
For many of us, work has changed this past year. For many white-collar office workers, remote work will continue into the future. Large companies are planning to scale down their office space, encouraging workers to split time between the office and home. This will allow workers the flexibility to live further in the suburbs or work remotely full-time.
Many individual businesses have performed well during the pandemic, some helping us work from home, others helping us keep in touch with family and friends. Zoom became a household name, and while a calendar full of meetings can be annoying, it helped keep communication flowing in a way that would have been impossible a decade ago. Despite an early shortage of toilet paper and other dry goods, stores kept their shelves stocked with essentials.
The American healthcare system has problems, but it weathered the crisis without being overwhelmed as many feared last spring. Healthcare professionals; from physicians to nurses, to every member of the healthcare team, made a Herculean effort to ensure patients received the care that they needed. This effort has translated into strong trust for healthcare workers compared to other professions.
The pandemic has had a significant impact on our lives over the past year, changing it in ways that we could not have imagined back at the beginning of 2020. Because of their response to the pandemic, many of our institutions—including federal public health agencies, teachers’ unions, and the media—have lost public support, which will be difficult to restore.
Soon, our personal lives will be back to something like normal, and we will travel to see friends and enjoy the things we have sacrificed for over a year. But some of our institutions and norms cannot return to their pre-pandemic normal, and that will continue to have ramifications far into the future.
Conor Norris is a research analyst at the Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation at Saint Francis University. He graduated from George Mason University with an MA in economics.
Catalyst articles by Conor Norris