We Could Have Changed the World

The upheaval of the pandemic was an opportunity to imagine a better society. Instead, we’re rushing back to “normal.”

Sunlight reflects off the water across from the Statue of LIberty
Gregory Halpern / Magnum

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, it was practically impossible to find hand sanitizer and toilet paper at stores around the United States. The upheaval had a dystopian feel: Some stores even ran out of sympathy cards, a reminder that we were—and still are—living in the valley of the shadow of death. As Americans sheltered in place, rattled by the changes, many pointed out a small sliver of hope: that embedded within this crisis was an opportunity to remake the world, so that when we reentered society it would be better than how we left it.

I was one of them: A year ago, I argued in The Atlantic that if we grieved the world we once knew and radically accepted that we would not return to “normal” life—full of injustices as it was—then we could build a better future. In the U.S. now, restrictions are mostly lifted, vaccines are available, disinfectants are abundant, and toilet paper fills store shelves, but the inequities that predated the pandemic remain unattended to. The world has not been remade, and there are no signs that it will be.

The changes that have taken place came by force in order to mitigate the spread of the virus. Zoom meetings became a way of life as schools, doctor visits, houses of worship, happy hours, and nonessential jobs went virtual. Our social lives shifted dramatically, as we adapted to social distancing and mask wearing. Many people were confined to a mostly virtual reality seemingly overnight—a demonstration of the breakneck speed at which we can implement structural change given the political will.

But as soon as vaccines became widely available, the U.S. began a dizzying rush back to “normal.” The undercurrent of the pandemic that many felt earlier—the opportunity to build a new world that prioritizes the flourishing of everybody—is vanishing before our very eyes. To be sure, after enduring more than a year of isolation, we should celebrate the joyful experiences of reuniting with family and friends and returning to some of the social activities we enjoyed prior to the pandemic. Vaccines made this possible, and that was no small feat.

What is obscured by all this excitement are two realities that we ignore to our own peril. One is that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. COVID-19 remains a major threat—we are in a race between dangerous new variants and vaccination rates, which are declining. People are still dying daily of COVID-19, and possibly millions of survivors struggle with debilitating long-haul symptoms. We live among people bereft by the deaths of loved ones. Others are frantically arranging vacation travel and gathering with friends, perhaps unwittingly boasting about their plans in the presence of the mourning. Summer itineraries are likely not leaving enough room for grief.

The other reality is that what we thought of as normal before the pandemic was broken in many ways. And if we continue to barrel toward it with singular focus, a transformative future will be foreclosed to us all.

For instance, the three rounds of stimulus checks that most Americans were given to help blunt the economic impact of the pandemic were a foretaste of how a universal basic income—once considered a radical proposal—could sustain people in times of struggle. Presently, a federal universal-basic-income policy seems unlikely; some states are ending extra unemployment benefits early.

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a groundswell of support from lawmakers calling for the cancellation of student-loan debt. The U.S. Department of Education halted federal-student-loan payments in March 2020, providing relief to millions of borrowers, but this reprieve will end on September 30. Some in Congress, including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have been putting pressure on President Joe Biden to forgive up to $50,000 in student-loan debt per borrower through executive action. But some Republican representatives have signaled their opposition, and other Democrats have not stated their position either way. Debt forgiveness would also help shrink the racial wealth gap by providing relief to Black borrowers, who are saddled with a disproportionate share of student-loan debt. On the campaign trail, Biden supported canceling $10,000 worth of student debt upon taking office. Six months into his presidency, he has not yet done so, though he has asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to prepare a memo about the legality of the action.

This time last year, the confluence of the pandemic and the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police drove millions of people into the streets in a wave of national protests for Black lives. These certainly weren’t the first protests against police brutality, but last year’s protests felt different—perhaps owing to the sheer volume of the crowds who turned out to protest in the midst of a pandemic, the global reach of the protests, their duration, and the prevalence of abolitionist demands to “Abolish the police” or “Defund the police.” As Alex S. Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing, told me, “A growing number of individuals and organizations are rejecting the standard police-reform narrative and are instead demanding alternatives to policing. This is very significant and moves us closer to a more systemic analysis of the role of policing in facilitating systems of profound inequality.” Still, many people maintain that defunding or abolishing police departments would compromise community safety (and violent crime has recently risen in many cities across the U.S.). Despite signs that the protests could spur some change, police abolition remains an unrealized goal, and reform faces challenges. On a local level, Minneapolis legislators pledged to defund the city’s police force. However, city-council members seem to have since backed off from this plan. On a national level, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021—a police-reform bill that includes an end to qualified immunity for police officers—is currently stalled in the Senate.

Some changes to what we consider normal, spurred by pandemic adaptations, do seem likely to stick around. Many companies are planning to offer continued flexibility for remote work, to varying degrees, though in other workplaces, that option is fading fast. Telemedicine, which had been growing before the pandemic, exploded while patients were isolating at home, and it will likely remain an option for some kinds of medical appointments whenever we enter a post-COVID-19 world. Some people will also likely continue to wear a face mask when sick to prevent the spread of not just the coronavirus, but colds and flus as well.

In many schools across the country, remote learning is likely to remain a supplemental option for students with diverse needs and circumstances. Through funding provided primarily by the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, buildings in some school districts are getting long overdue upgrades to improve their heating, cooling, and ventilation systems in order to ensure good air quality for students and teachers. Many educators would like to take the transformation further.

Teachers have quickly adapted to the complications of remote teaching, essentially lodging their fingers in the proverbial dam to prevent the educational system from bursting during the pandemic. In New York City, a group of members of the Movement of Rank and File Educators, the social-justice caucus of the United Federation of Teachers of NYC told me over email, “We’re glad to see more investment in schools, but teachers and students often don't see the funds in our classrooms, as it gets spent on consultants, supervision, etc.” And, the group told me, the one-time financial infusion pales in comparison to what they would like to see. “We seek a school system where children and adults can grow and thrive in their fullest humanity. One with robust arts, sciences, social studies, and meaningful learning … one where teachers aren’t compelled to work hours of unpaid overtime just to stay afloat.”

The pandemic laid bare the speed at which societal change can occur when the threat is big enough. Conversely, society’s reopening is revealing just how quickly we can slide back into complacency. The chasm between the legion of inequities confronting us and the modest responses to them—if they have been responded to at all—is stunning. The eviction moratorium is set to expire on July 31, 2021, and the Biden administration has said it will not grant an extension beyond that deadline. The streets are quiet for now, but Black people are still being killed by the police. The Affordable Care Act has been upheld, but millions of Americans remain uninsured. America claims to be the greatest democracy in the world, but just last month the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. The social safety net is beyond tattered; it has become an abyss where the marginalized continue to be swallowed whole. Incrementalism is no match for gargantuan inequalities. Courage is the prerequisite for change, and courage’s companion is love. It is lovelessness that will crush this nation. Loving our neighbors would mean taking the courageous leap toward enacting transformative policy changes that improve the material conditions of those who have borne the brunt of this pandemic, and who struggled long before it. This is the opportune time to act, and it’s slipping away. A new world awaits the courageous; running back to the old one is cowardice.