Think back over the Year of COVID: what images strike in your mind?
Correspondent Martha Teichner asked six prominent public figures to remember and reflect.
“Just empty cities across the world,” said urban studies theorist Richard Florida.
“Broadway, just empty,” said “Hamilton” star Renée Elise Goldsberry.
“Store after store, first closing, and then shutting down,” said economist Laura Tyson.
Civil rights advocate Mary Frances Berry said, “People are parked day, after day, after day.”
“Masks, so that’d be number one,” said psychologist Steven Pinker. “Number two would be the Zoom checker box.”
Chef José Andrés said, “Americans in hunger lines, in food lines, sometimes for hours.”
For Teichner, the snapshot is of lines – food lines, and the lines to sign up for unemployment … the lines to be tested for coronavirus, then to vote … and now, a year into the pandemic, to be vaccinated.
What, she asked, has this done to us as a nation psychologically?
“The honest answer is that we really don’t know,” said Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, “because humans are so complex and have so many ways of adapting.”
“People can’t touch, they can’t hug each other, they can’t shake hands,” said Teichner.
“My grandparents would stay in touch with their relatives through the mails,” Pinker said. “Now, nothing can substitute for a hug, a kiss, a handshake, being in each other’s presence, but we can go a long, a large part of the way through language.”
Thank heaven for Zoom and all its cousins. This has been the year of living, loving, working through glass.
But dying that way, alone, is a part of the tragedy of COVID. Saying goodbye to a loved one on a cell phone held up by a nurse, agonizing.
Pinker said, “For the people who have lost friends, relatives, intimates, there also has to be kind of a delayed period of mourning, because we’ve not had funerals. And in the immediate aftermath of a pandemic, that would certainly lead to a somber recognition of what we’ve been through.”
- (“Sunday Morning”)
- (“Sunday Morning”)
How do we even try to count the cost, especially to minority and at-risk kids, of a year in which most couldn’t go to in-person school?
“You’re consigning people to more and more inequality, and more suffering, in the country,” said University of Pennsylvania professor Mary Frances Berry, who chaired the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. “So, I think that that education story is the saddest of the stories coming out of this, aside from the people who died.”
Here’s a pretty shocking statistic:in the first half of 2020 … but for Latinos, nearly two years, and for Black Americans, nearly three years.
Berry said, “Black folks seem to get, as part of our history, the worst. We get more of everything that’s bad, and less of everything that’s good. That’s just part of our history. We know that there are these disparities, and with the pandemic, it’s just worse.”
- (“Sunday Morning”)
In April, when COVID job losses were at their worst, more than 22 million people were unemployed. More than half those jobs have come back, but significant racial differences persist.
“Going into COVID, I already was convinced that we were going to see more and more digitization of work, more and more automation of work, more and more therefore erosions of jobs that you would call middle-skill, middle-income jobs,” said University of California, Berkeley professor Laura Tyson, who headed the Council of Economic Advisors during the Clinton administration. “We were going to see an opportunity for more high-skill jobs, and we were gonna see this ‘barbell.’ We were gonna see an increase in low-skill jobs, so the barbell in the middle kind of disappears.
“And everything I have heard from the surveys or seen from the evidence is that COVID is just accelerating all of that.”
Think of our COVID-hollowed cities … office towers emptied out when their occupants were told to go home and work. So many of the mom-and-pop shops nearby, the restaurants, shut for good because their customers were gone.
Urban studies theorist Richard Florida says remote work is here to stay. But he thinks cities will bounce back quickly … at least some of them.
“New York for sure does well. Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, they all end up OK,” he said. “Does Chicago come back the way it was? What about Detroit? What about Toledo or Dayton or Cincinnati or Cleveland or Buffalo? Those are places that would keep me up at night more. I think that COVID has tipped the scales a little bit more towards the Sun Belt.”
- (“Sunday Morning”)
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During our year in lockdown, we found ways to thank the heroes who risked their lives for us, who chose to help others. But often those heroes were casualties of the pandemic themselves.
“Before the pandemic, in my company, we had 1,100 people working, almost 1,200; right now, we are around 450,” said noted chef and restaurateur José Andrés. Not even he could escape the catastrophe COVID brought to the more than 13 million people employed in his industry.
Nearly one out of five restaurants has closed permanently in the last year.
“It’s been hard at times,” Andrés said. “I had more than one tear.”
But through World Central Kitchen, the not-for-profit he founded in 2010 to feed people in time of crisis around the globe, Andrés set out at least to staunch the hemorrhage, and do some good here.
“If you have the restaurants of America closed, what better than have the restaurants of America feeding the people in need and in the process keep the economy going?” he said. “Nobody getting rich, but at least making sure that the restaurants were safe but actively feeding, making some money, paying the employees, paying rent, keeping the business afloat, and in the process covering the needs of the hungry.”
During COVID, World Central Kitchen has served nearly 40 million meals in more than 400 U.S. cities so far.
- (“60 Minutes”)
- (“CBS Evening News”)
Renée Elise Goldsberry won a Tony for her role in “Hamilton.” She was on a concert tour when just about the entire arts, entertainment and recreation industry suddenly shut down. In New York City alone, two-thirds of the jobs in the field – nearly 60,000 – went away.
“The impact of COVID on my industry is just devastating,” Goldsberry said. “It’s kind of a loss of the thing that makes our life worth living. It’s kind of like being taken away from our church, in a way. We figured it out, though!”
Zoom to the rescue! Broadway stars like Goldsberry decided the show must go on, raising money for fellow artists.
“We came in like the cavalry, and we recognized that not only did we desperately need to find a way to come together and do what we do as artists, the world needed us to show up and do that.”
Last Wednesday, the City of New York announced that beginning in April theatres can start reopening, with small pop-up performances and very limited audiences. Packed Broadway shows, the kind that bring tourists flocking to the Big Apple, are still a mirage on the horizon.
“We will limp back in, kind of battered and bruised, but we are determined to come back,” Goldsberry said. “We need it, and we are needed. We will come back. That’s all anybody is thinking about right now.”
- (“Sunday Morning”)
Will we all just limp back into the world when, finally, the threat of COVID recedes? Or will we all burst out? Will the 2020s be another “Roaring Twenties”?
Teichner asked, “Has there tended to be a party after the plague?”
“After some historic pandemics, there have been bursts of celebration,” said Pinker. “After the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, 1919, there were the Roaring Twenties. There were reports after the horrific Black Death of the 14th century that there was a burst of debauchery and celebration and partying in the years afterwards.”
Berry laughed, “I’m not looking forward to a second Roaring Twenties. What I’m looking forward to is being able to finally see friends and relatives and go out and have dinner and have a good bottle of wine!”
For more info:
- Steven Pinker, Harvard University
- Richard Florida, Creative Class Group
- Laura Tyson, Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley
- José Andrés, World Central Kitchen
- Mary Frances Berry, University of Pennsylvania
- Renée Elise Goldsberry (Instagram)
Story produced by Alan Golds. Editor: Ed Givnish.