My list of lessons we can take from 2020 does not pretend to be definitive. It’s simply one person’s attempt to ponder some of the mistakes we made and the exceptional inventiveness we marshaled individually and collectively to deal with catastrophe.
Begin with the social X-ray the pandemic administered to our country. While millions of Americans suffered economically, a significant part of our citizenry — particularly those with large stock holdings — got richer. (The Dow Jones industrial average is up roughly 60 percent since mid-March.) “Inequality” is an abstract word. But there was nothing abstract about the stark divide between those who could work from home and those who couldn’t.
In resolving to address our inequities, we should begin with those who gave the most: the “essential workers,” from delivery drivers to health-care staff, from supermarket employees to meatpackers, without whom our society would pretty well have collapsed. We need to remember them long after the pandemic is over.
Two people I admire, Molly Kinder, my colleague at the Brookings Institution, and Maureen Conway, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program, have done exceptional work all year on how to repay our debt to these workers. Their ideas — on better pay, benefits, working conditions and promotion opportunities — reflect the most just way of saying thanks.
A pandemic also reminds us of the social nature of health: When sick people go untreated, they can infect others. I believed long before this experience that all Americans should have access to good, affordable health care as a right. But even if you don’t share that view philosophically, we all have a practical (dare one say selfish?) interest in a far better public health system.
All over the world, citizens learned that having a government that works really matters. It needs to be competent, efficient, creative, agile and focused. We need to learn from other countries that handled the virus better than we did. We need to respect the work of public servants more than we do. And we need to build a better public sector.
We should also see how rapid government intervention, to the tune of trillions of dollars throughout the world, prevented economic collapse. Austerity was, thankfully, pushed aside. Thus will the economist John Maynard Keynes’s ideas get a new lease on intellectual influence.
And since my social democratic bias is showing, I’ll join Megan McArdle, my Post colleague and a free-market conservative, in praising those “supply-chain managers and operations chiefs” who worked wonders this year in “making sure the rest of us had what we needed.” Their innovations will be instructive for the future (although I’d add a plug for good wages and working conditions up and down those chains). We’ll also learn from how organized science and public/private partnerships produced a vaccine with such astonishing speed.
We discovered that in many spheres, there are better ways to organize work. Working from home does not have to decrease productivity, and it can save time once wasted on commuting while containing the environmental damage caused by traffic jams. At the same time, as Sarah O’Connor observed in the Financial Times, we missed the opportunities that working in the same place provides to build the social capital and trust all enterprises need to operate effectively. We’ll need to get the balance between these two insights right.
And on a related note: We see the inadequacy of our system (really, nonsystem) of child care more clearly than ever.
We wondered how we would hold a democratic election during a pandemic. We solved this problem brilliantly by expanding voting opportunities, particularly through mail and drop boxes.
Yes, the stakes of this election no doubt drew more people out, but making voting easier mattered, and in a cross-partisan way. Joe Biden got 15.4 million more votes than Hillary Clinton did, but President Trump received 11.2 million more votes than he did four years ago. Rather than roll back this year’s election reforms, we should push them further.
And, finally, there is the gratitude that comes from realizing the infinite value of our families and our friends. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to remind of us of the costs of loneliness and isolation, but each of us might consider a New Year’s resolution to reach out to people who are alone. 2020 taught us just how fragile life can be. It’s a burden better borne in solidarity with each other.