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The Next Challenge: COVID-19’s Recovery
(Published May 5, 2021)
We rightly celebrate the deployment of COVID-19 vaccines and the lifting of “stay-at-home” orders. No one yet says the Pandemic is over. Many see that the end is in sight, that there is “light” at the “end of the tunnel.”
If we are not careful, not thoughtful about the challenges on our joint recovery road, the light might be a train.
We will take a while to process the scale of COVID-19’s toll. That toll does not measure easily. More than 580,000 American lives lost. Over 33 million Americans ill. These numbers only begin the tally. By one estimate, in 2020 alone, U.S. women and men lost over 4 million “years of life” – a measure used by insurance companies and actuaries to gauge the number of years shaved off “normal” life by disease and death. Focus on that for a minute. COVID-19 cut short four million years of productive life – Life people would have “used” earning livings, learning, enjoying other’s company, and engaging in those things which make life worth living.
The loss of four million years of useful life does not fit in my brain. Can we put another number on it? The median American makes $38,000 per year. Do the math. Four million times $38,000 equals what? My calculator reads: 1.52e11? That is One-Hundred, Fifty-Two billion dollars — $152,000,000,000.
Every dollar lost means less spent on college, retirement, entertainment, food, clothing, shelter, movies, music and so on and so forth. The dead do not need the lost money. The living do.
Every wage earner lost to a family reduces the earning power of that family. The impact is generational. The Pandemic may have been once-in-a-lifetime. Not its impact. The Pandemic’s impact could reverberate for a generation or more.
Would it be surprising to see that communities of color and the underserved have a more difficult time making up for this economic loss? As has been historically the case, the affluent and well-connected will rebound faster than others. We witnessed that in every economic downturn – every war – throughout our long American experiment. Communities historically disadvantaged will not become less disadvantaged by the Pandemic. Likely, those communities will struggle overcoming their “years of loss.”
And while the statisticians are still working on the numbers, some think COVID-19 impacted traditionally underserved communities at a greater rate than majority dominated communities. If so, this means the economic impact of COVID-19 illness and death may have even a greater disproportionate impact on historically marginalized communities.
That toll does not consider COVID-19 survivors.
Already reports abound about the long-term health impact on so-called “COVID-19 Long Haulers.” Called Post-Acute COVID-19 Syndrome or “PACS,” some COVID-19 survivors report long-term symptoms including shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, body aches, lasting memory retention issues (“foggy brain”), light-headedness, and difficulty breathing.
Survivors suffering PACS may be impacted for years – And it is likely these impacts will be felt in the wallet with declining productivity, earning power and longer-term job opportunities. While one struggles to take a breath or remember the task at hand, one might not be performing at the “top of their game.”
Remember, though many millions of us “worked from home,” many others could not. Manual workers could not. Emergency medical workers could not. The workers who prepared meals, cleaned rest rooms, disinfected counters and hospitals and all the other “touch points” we feared could give us COVID. Those workers continued to serve. Kept us all safe.
My guess is that underserved community members overrepresent these workers.
The train I fear is the one which causes these community members to shoulder more of the weight of COVID than would be considered their fair share. I fear that this once-in-a-life event will result in a greater loss of life, a greater loss of future earning power and a harsher economic impact on peoples already burdened by racial and social injustice.
It does not have to be this way. History gives us examples – creative approaches our society can use to ease the weight on those we asked to shoulder and will shoulder a heavier burden than others.
My future posts will explore some of these approaches.