Eric Klinenberg
The New York Times

We Were Wrong About What Happened to America in 2020

Covid numbers recently climbed again. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once again reported monthly death tolls in the thousands. Mask mandates are back in New York City’s public medical facilities and nursing homes. The presidential race has kicked into gear, and just as in 2020, the stakes seem existential. It all makes me feel I’m revisiting a past I never actually left.

I’m not the only one wrestling with that feeling. In other ways, 2020 seems like another lifetime. The pandemic ended; we went on with our lives. Yet by considerable margins, people still say they feel alienated, vulnerable, unsafe. It’s only now becoming clear how little we understood what the United States experienced during that unforgettable year and how deeply it shaped us.

I’ve come to think of our current condition as a kind of long Covid, a social disease that intensified a range of chronic problems and instilled the belief that the institutions we’d been taught to rely on are unworthy of our trust. The result is a durable crisis in American civic life. Just look at the election cycle we are about to fall into: It seems the world turned upside down several times, and yet here we are facing the prospect of another contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, as though the country hasn’t moved forward an inch. Everything changed, and yet almost nothing changed.

In March, when Covid-19 hit New York City, the same state government that took ages to issue a liquor license needed just days to demand that the newly opened Mac’s cease operations. Mr. Presti understood the threat and accepted the decision. What he didn’t expect was that the pub would have to remain closed or restricted, on and off, for more than a year. Or that, because his business was new, the government would offer so little financial support.

On a wide range of outcomes, including many that were less visible at the time, this country fared much worse during the Covid pandemic than comparable nations did. Distrust, division and disorganized leadership contributed to the scale of our negative health outcomes. As for our continuing distress, the standard explanation is a uniquely American loneliness. The surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, declared it an epidemic in its own right.

The truth, however, is there’s no good evidence that Americans are lonelier than ever. Our social patterns changed, of course. Yet a major recent poll showed that older Americans said they were significantly less lonely than they were three years ago; a recent peer-reviewed study reported that middle-aged Americans described themselves as less lonely than they were 20 years ago. Loneliness is more pervasive among younger Americans, but there too, the rates have also plummeted since 2020. Logically, we should be feeling better. Why can’t we shake this thing?

Because loneliness was never the core problem. It was, rather, the sense among so many different people that they’d been left to navigate the crisis on their own. How do you balance all the competing demands of health, money, sanity? Where do you get tests, masks, medicine? How do you go to work — or even work from home — when your kids can’t go to school?

The answer was always the same: Figure it out. Stimulus checks and small-business loans helped. But while other countries built trust and solidarity, America — both during and after 2020 — left millions to fend for themselves.

Now the Biden administration is flummoxed by why Americans don’t feel more optimistic despite all the good economic news, and some conservative groups are frustrated that Republican voters remain loyal to a candidate who has been charged with 91 felony counts. Voters are refusing to behave the way some are telling them would be rational. But the inequities that the pandemic laid bare have only deepened over time. For millions of Americans, distrust feels like the most rational state.

Over the past four years, I’ve gotten to know New Yorkers from every borough who felt abandoned by our core institutions when they needed a steady hand: a Bronx political aide who didn’t trust the vaccines she was promoting, an elementary teacher in Manhattan’s Chinatown whose students were viewed with suspicion by people afraid of the Asian flu and Mr. Presti, who spent months looking for help or for answers while his work life and his dreams for the future fell apart. In November he and his partner kept their bar open past the 10 p.m. curfew mandated by the city. Soon after, they declared their business an “autonomous zone.” He went on Fox News to express his frustration about little guys getting clobbered by big government, being forced to sacrifice their livelihood. Fed up with institutions that wouldn’t help him, he grew distrustful of scientific authorities and impatient with fellow citizens who seemed too weak to question those in power. At some point, Mr. Presti started calling himself a freedom fighter.

The very different people I spoke with that year all had one thing in common: a feeling that in the wake of Covid, all the larger institutions they had been taught to trust had failed them. At the most precarious times in their lives, they found there was no system in place to help.

Nearly four years later, the situation is, if anything, worse.

The New York Times