Three years of pandemic: risks, losses, and lessons

Three years ago today I posted this:

coronavirus_Bryan's first blog post 2020 Feb 12

Three years, 124 posts, and a planetary storm later – where do we stand?

I had in mind a long essay for this anniversary. But for reasons which will become clear below, I determined that nobody would read that far, so I opt instead to be concise.  I also wanted to reminisce about my own work on COVID-19, but didn’t think that would be of interest to most.  So let’s cut to the chase.  Hang on – I’m going to go quickly.

I: What was actually unprecedented

In late 2019 what became known as COVID-19 appeared in Wuhan, then started spreading. In early 2020 that coronavirus began to race around the world and people who should have known better called it “unprecedented.”

Coronavirus JHU 2020 Feb 13

From February 14, 2020. Look at that map. Look at the death toll.

Even the most casual glance at history shows ample precedent for contagious diseases attacking societies, but enough people either never thought of this, or just extrapolated from their own shock and good fortune to assume the whole of civilization had never been afflicted, so the stupid meme took off.  (Nations which recently endured contagions like SARS and MERS tended to be, in contrast, wiser.)

What was actually unprecedented was how higher education responded.  In a matter of weeks – sometimes only a few days – and rarely with extra help – we flipped nearly all of in-person post-secondary classes online.  As I’ve told academic audience after audience, this was a remarkable thing.  Yes, we made all kinds of mistakes, especially as unpracticed and undersupported faculty and students struggled to make emergency remote instruction work – all while the pandemic built and gnawed at us.  There were some awful pedagogical practices at work, and I can tell some stories about this.

But we did it. And then we did more. In April 2020 I told the Wall Street Journal about some models I had for how colleges and universities might continue to respond to the pandemic, especially as planning went on for fall term of that year.  Those models proved true, more or less, but were also far too macro to catch the sheer innovation which was starting to occur.  Campuses came up with new plans for classes.  They rebooted calendars. Some split on-site attendance in two by academic year while others picked which buildings could be opened and when. Institutions rethought gap years, first-year orientation, classroom density, outdoor classes, graduation protocol, Greek life, social life in general, libraries, sports, WiFi coverage, infection dashboards, and more.

Higher education, long described as institutionally conservative if not reactionary, suddenly leapt online and rethought itself.  We collectively did a tremendous amount of learning, experiment, practice, revision, imagination, and implementation. And we did it at scale.  Full scale, in fact.

I believe that we can recognize the mistakes we made, listen to the sheer amount of human work and anxiety involved, as well as the rising suffering causes by the pandemic and its effects – while also celebrating that academics also demonstrated tremendous care, creativity, imagination, and hard work.  We broke the mold, and that is unprecedented.

Or it was, for a time.

II: Putting the present behind us

As 2020 staggered in it became clear that the trend of energetic innovation was matched by a rising desire to return to fall 2019, before the virus. Some of that countervailing trend’s force came from faculty who disliked teaching online and wanted to get back in the classroom, and who had some measure of governance power (most do not). Some number of students felt the same.  Perhaps a stronger force still came from administrations dreading the financial hits they were taking, especially from lost room and board fees, for those with significant residential student bodies.

Two largely external innovations empowered this countervailing trend even further.  First, there was the astonishingly fast development and deployment of a COVID vaccine at national levels.  Setting aside the boneheaded “vaccine hesitancy” for the moment, this invention helped many people believe they could meet with people in person once more.

(At the same time the CDC did something no futurist I know of anticipated.  The CDC screwed up. They botched test rollouts and struggled with messaging.  They also struggled with Trump.  Seriously, check out the cool heroes of Contagion (2011) if you want to see how many people through the CDC would act. It is to weep.)

Second, there was the CARES Act, which proved a financial lifeline for hard-hit colleges and universities.  Day by day it looked more likely that in-person education might not be a humanitarian disaster.

This was not a consensus view.  Consider, for example, Tressie McMillan Cottom’s fierce comments from April 2020:

“It is better for institutions to die than for people to die.”  Who in higher education agreed?

In public health terms, it was a no-brainer to realize that students, faculty, and staff not meeting each other in person was clearly safer than bringing them back together in a game of epidemiological Russian roulette.

Yet gradually, then generally through 2021, we played that game. At scale.

Students, faculty, and staff gradually repopulated campuses.  And there was a great deal of positive emotion because many of us are invested in that sometimes magical experience.  There was also a gradual financial return as fee payments rose.

What was the result?

Fewer campuses shut down than I expected, thanks to the federal and student cash inflows. Enrollment declined, but not as badly as it might have.  Primarily- or entirely-online universities saw their student numbers blossom.

Yet in a crucial, essential way, we do not know what the results were.

You see, I and others tried to track the human costs of the pandemic within higher education.  I noted infection totals as best I could, along with some deaths, but the data problem was far beyond my resources.  4,000 institutions each with some degree of autonomy and idiosyncratic data reporting systems represented a horrendous data collection challenge. As fall 2020 began it became clear that not even the New York Times could track the pandemic’s casualties within academia, despite throwing dozens of reports at the problem.

We haven’t solved that problem since.

As I write this I cannot find any source reliably describing how many students, faculty, and staff were medically damaged by their COVID experiences. I can’t tell you about many now have long COVID, a condition which adds further health problems.  I can’t report how many academics the virus killed.  On top of that, I don’t know how many people who aren’t academics were sickened, injured, or killed because of contact with academics who spread the virus, thanks to being in contact with fellow students, faculty, and staff.  To some extent higher education’s “reopening” was a terrific opening for the pandemic. Our decision to try a return to 2019 sickened, injured, and killed some people, or just made their situations worse. Some readers will know people in those categories, or may be in them themselves. Yet we may never know the real numbers.

Put another way, how many institutions took the opposite view of Tressie Cottom’s? Some, perhaps many did, implicitly. But we just don’t know.

And then we moved on. Eventually president Biden, if not the CDC nor the World Health Organization, declared the pandemic over.  Masks and social distancing melted away.

III: 1921 2.0?

And that’s where we stand today, finally realizing my post-pandemic campus scenario throughout the sector.  Some rare folks wear masks.  Campuses have different policies about vaccinations.  But we seem to have moved on, like American society as a whole.

Oh, COVID is still here:

coronavirus world dashboard JHU 2023 Feb 12

Here’s that Johns Hopkins dashboard tonight.

That’s why I think of 1921.  Briefly, in 1918 the so-called Spanish flu tore into a humanity already ripping itself to shreds with the new, science fictional levels of destruction the First World War’s industrial-scale terror was delivering. That influenza raced along military and economic supply lines, devouring the very young and the very old.  By 1920 the death toll stood at tens of millions, perhaps more.

And then, by 1921, we moved on.  We didn’t erect triumphant monuments because we had little to celebrate.  Medical science and public health had done their best and learned a lot, but ultimately experienced a staggering butcher’s bill.  Besides, the aftershocks of WWI (including a series of wars; the thing didn’t stop cleanly) grabbed the limelight. The Great Influenza faded in memory as the 20s began to roar (or, in the nascent USSR, do a very different thing indeed).

You see where I’m going with this. As I write we have no national commemoration of the great struggle against COVID-19.  The world has lost nearly 7 million people, and probably more, given mortality statistics, yet our mourning is quiet and individualized, rather than public and social.  There’s a giant sense of futility, either of “we’ve done all we could” or “I’m doing fine, thanks.” People tell me “they want their lives back” and that they don’t see how they can persuade people to mask up, much less get vaccinated.

There’s a strong individualism at work here, when people tell me they make decisions based on their own assessment of personal risk.  How will a certain behavior – masking or not, going for a haircut, visiting grandparents – increase the odds of me getting infected, hurt, or worse?  That’s the question, and it’s a terrible one for COVID. That’s because this is an infectious disease, and my decision impacts potentially many other people.  But that individualist mindset closes off the world beyond one’s skin.  What level of risk will I accept, and forget the rest of us.

Acceptance is the word of the day now, just accepting COVID’s extra burdens of illness and death on top of the others: cancer, AIDS, car wrecks, the occasional murder. We’re so over it all now.  It’s 1921 again, as it were, and we do have a lot on our plate.  There’s Russia’s war in Ukraine, the US-China cold war, economic turmoil, the climate crisis (for some of us), technological challenges – and what’s going on with balloons and unidentified objects being shot down?  Not to mention our personal lives and entertainment.

I’ve seen this personally.  I’ve tracked the pandemic since the start (my wife just shared some emails and chat we exchanged in January 2020), trying to apply my professional skills to do what I could to help.  I’ve blogged, tweeted, made podcasts, made videos, written articles, given presentations. In 2020 these were sometimes in great demand.  Heck, I broke Google Sheets by triggering so many demand Google engineers couldn’t keep the thing running.  Yet interest started to fade, then drop. Folks – including academics – are just not very into the pandemic.  When I mention it in front of live audience people get quiet. I haven’t gotten an audience question on the topic for a year or longer.

What happened to 2020’s torrent of innovation?  That’s a good question. We did change a lot of institutional operations.  Academics are more digitally experienced and skilled than they were in 2019, overall, from what I can tell.  I think many campuses are better prepared to do emergency remote instruction than they once were.

Do we have that sense of urgency?  I don’t see it.  Do we have that level of creativity and openness to possibilities?  I’ll leave that for readers to decide.

IV. Peering ahead

What does this tell us, o futurist, about what’s to come? you might ask.

I now look at the pandemic as a kind of test run for how humanity might respond to the climate crisis for the next few generations.  From this I deduce a few things.

First, we are capable of immense innovation.  Technological creativity and social creativity alike are right in our wheelhouse – especially for academia. This gives me a great deal of hope.

Second, we are prone to thinking in national, rather than global frameworks, which will cause some problems when it comes to another planetary crisis.  In the United States, our badly broken public health system means we’ll likely think subnationally, in terms of states, counties, and cities, since that’s where the real decisions and actions were.

Third, we’ll think about the climate emergency in even small terms than towns.  We’ll focus on our individual selves, not unreasonably, but will then remove from thinking the social and planetary contexts within which we’re embedded. People will decide that their own behaviors are too insignificant to have any impact, and will therefore keep on flying, burning coal, etc.  Or we’ll make decisions based on individual risk.  “Sure, I live on the Atlantic coast and might get pummeled by the rising sea or see my groundwater turn salty. But I’m clever and will protect myself.  Now, where did I park the SUV?”  I’ve heard versions of this from academics already.

Fourth, we’ll politicize the heck out of just about any science.  Put another way, we all believe in the science – it’s just political science that we often have in mind.

And fifth… what depresses me now is just how accepting we are.  As I write this Americans accept COVID killing a few hundred of us every day, three years on. It doesn’t merit talking about, not in person nor across any media. If I told you in 2019 that we’d just get used to that daily toll, would you have believed me?

It’s unclear how many are living with Long COVID – tens of millions?  It’s not clear just how we’ll rebuild a shattered medical care system. But we’re moving on. So when it comes to global warming, I fear we’ll swiftly get used to coastlines nibbled away, people fleeing overheated towns and cities, climate migrants in the millions, collapsed rivers, new diseases, old diseases in new places, ecosystems mutating, and food stocks declining, once the initial media buzz wears off and we just … acclimate.

I sincerely hope I’m wrong.  Yet I can’t shake that conclusion, three years on.  Three long years after the virus reached out to seize the world.

In the meantime I hope each of you, dear reader, is safe and sound.  I wish you well.

(thanks to friends, family, and Patreons for thinking through this post with me)

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2 Responses to Three years of pandemic: risks, losses, and lessons

  1. Trent Batson says:

    Bryan, all that you say seems sound to me, and wise, and spot-on, so that is my main message. One corrective: COVID was and IS the climate crisis — the changing climate has caused mass species extinctions so species that did not have contact before do have contact now and share viruses. So, pandemics fit into “climate crisis” as much as “floods,” “fires,” “droughts,” “famine” etc. They are all linked to us altering our global ecosystem. And, yes, COVID showed us how we respond to global crises poorly.

  2. sibyledu says:

    I won’t quibble with any of your conclusions. But I’m not as depressed by the acceptance of high Covid death totals as you are. We were, in effect, prepared for those totals. Covid ran third behind heart disease and cancer in deaths in 2021 and will probably be lower in 2022. I believe the general mindset basically assumes that the worst is over: that the quick development of early vaccines stopped it from overrunning us, and that as Covid treatment and vaccination gets better over time, it will settle somewhere behind accidents and ahead of cirrhosis in terms of deaths. And at that point it’s a manageable, livable risk.

    I think we humans are more willing to rely on our ability to innovate and adapt, rather than make the peacetime sacrifices and wholesale changes needed to mitigate, let alone reverse, climate change. Yes, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren may find that the US may be basically uninhabitable south of the old Missouri Compromise line, and in their time Charlotte and Sacramento may be seacoast cities, but they’ll live in that world as best they can. And just as our grandparents and great-grandparents divided up the Colorado River to settle the West, they will figure out some way to reshape the world to make it livable. Not as livable as our world, but livable nevertheless. And if they can’t, then finally they’ll invest in space travel and terraforming.

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