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Opinion Biden’s diagnosis is a reminder: We must still make things better

President Biden on the South Lawn of the White House on July 20. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden has tested positive for the coronavirus. Given that his symptoms are mild, he was vaccinated and boosted, and he will receive the best treatment available, there’s every reason to think he will recover. But this is a reminder that while most of us would like to be done with the coronavirus, the coronavirus is most certainly not done with us.

It’s also a good opportunity to remember the extraordinary toll it has taken on our nation — and reflect on where we could go next.

You might think the pandemic is entirely behind us if you walk into a store or restaurant where no one is wearing a mask. But there are currently more than 125,000 new reported coronavirus infections every day. That number is a drastic understatement, since most people now test at home, and those who test positive tend to hunker down without reporting their status.

And more than 400 Americans a day are dying of covid-19. That’s significantly fewer than during the worst pandemic waves, when some days saw more than 4,000 deaths, but it’s still a very large number.

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Most of us no longer keep track of the grim death totals; in case you’re wondering, the number for the United States now stands at more than 1,023,000, a figure impossible to wrap your mind around. We account for almost 1 in 6 coronavirus deaths worldwide, though we are only about 4 percent of the world’s population.

The economic consequences have been so sweeping and complex that they are almost immeasurable; economists will be writing dissertations and books about them for a generation. Millions lost their jobs, then got different jobs, then started working from home and found industries transformed. We suffered a supply-chain catastrophe, followed by a global inflation shock. It will be years before we settle back to something like the economy we had before, if we ever do.

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Children might have been affected most deeply, their educations and their social development interrupted. They will forever be the covid generation.

In addition to all the immediate suffering the pandemic brought, what has been almost as bad is that covid just made America meaner in ways we might never recover from. The disconnection, the politicization, the despair — all of it has taken a profound toll on our ability to tolerate one another.

You can see it in the jump in violent crime that began in 2020, and even in the increase in things such as pedestrian fatalities. We’re impatient and argumentative and angry, less willing to take a breath or give one another a break.

We all made mistakes — employers, public officials, ordinary people. Sometimes it was because of what we didn’t know at the time (remember when you were wiping down your groceries?), and sometimes it was out of cynicism or malice.

But will we learn from what went wrong and what went right?

Let’s think about that question through one small but meaningful policy change: As part of pandemic relief, Congress made breakfast and lunch free for all public school children. That removed the bureaucracy required to determine who was and wasn’t eligible for free meals, who had money in their account and so on — all kids just got to eat in school, just as we give them all books and lockers. It was a huge success.

But now it’s slated to expire this summer, and it looks like Republicans are determined to make sure it does. Heaven forbid we should have a simple, effective system that honors what ought to be a basic human value.

But that’s not the end of the story. States and cities are moving to extend universal free lunch or make it permanent even if the federal government won’t, because they saw the good it did. Maybe one day, even the federal government will recognize that good, too. We haven’t achieved a fully humane and reasonable system, but we’re closer than we were. It’s a reminder that everywhere you look at mid-pandemic America, there are lessons to be found, in both our successes and our failures.

When Biden ran in 2020, he tried to embody the promise that we had it in ourselves to move past our acrimony and solve our myriad problems together. It proved harder than he thought, and he was not exactly overwhelmed with volunteers from the opposition looking to transcend our differences and calm the partisan waters.

We can’t bring back the people we lost or wipe away the mistakes we made. But we can commit to making ourselves — our government, our economy, the way we treat one another — better than they all were at their lowest moments. And now that covid-19 has found Biden, as it did so many others, he should take this as an occasion to urge us down that path.