Maybe it’s wishful thinking to declare the pandemic over in the U.S., and presumptuous to conclude what lessons we’ve learned from it. So consider this list a first draft.
1. Workers are always essential.
We couldn’t have survived without millions of warehouse, delivery, grocery and hospital workers literally risking their lives. Yet most of these workers are paid squat. Amazon touts its $15 minimum wage, but it totals only about $30,000 a year. Most essential workers still don’t have health insurance or paid leave. Many of their employers (including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, to take but two examples) didn’t give them the personal protective equipment they needed.
Lesson: Essential workers deserve far better.
2. Health care is a basic right.
You know how you got your vaccine without paying a dime? That’s how all health care could be. Yet too many Americans who contracted COVID-19 got walloped with humongous hospital bills. By mid-2020, about 3.3 million people had lost employer-sponsored coverage, and the number of uninsured increased by 1.9 million. Research by the Urban Institute found that people with chronic disease, Black Americans and low-income children were most likely to have delayed or forgone care during the pandemic.
Lesson: America must insure everyone.
3. Conspiracy theories can be deadly.
Last June, about 1 in 4 Americans believed the pandemic was “definitely” or “probably” created intentionally, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Other conspiracy theories have caused some people to avoid wearing masks or getting vaccinated, causing unnecessary illness or death.
Lesson: An informed public is essential. Some of the responsibility falls on all of us. Some of it falls on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms that allowed such misinformation to flourish.
4. The stock market isn’t the economy.
The stock market rose throughout the pandemic, lifting the wealth of the richest 1 percent, who own half of all stock owned by Americans. Meanwhile, from March 2020 to February 2021, 80 million in the U.S. lost their jobs. Between June and November 2020, nearly 8 million Americans fell into poverty. Black and Latino adults were more than twice as likely as white adults to report not having enough to eat — 16 percent each for Black and Latino adults, compared with 6 percent of white adults.
Lesson: Stop using the stock market as a measure of economic well-being. Look instead at the percentage of Americans who are working, and their median pay.
5. Wages are too low to get by on.
Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck. So once the pandemic hit, many didn’t have any savings to fall back on. Conservative lawmakers complain that the extra $300-a-week unemployment benefit Congress enacted in March discourages people from working. What’s really discouraging them is lack of childcare and lousy wages.
Lesson: Raise the minimum wage, strengthen labor unions, provide universal childcare and push companies to share profits with their workers.
6. Remote work is now baked into the economy.
The percentage of workers punching in from home hit a high of 70 percent in April 2020. A majority continue to work remotely. Some 40 percent want to continue working from home.
Two lessons: Companies will have to adjust. And much commercial real estate will remain vacant. Why not convert it into affordable housing?
7. Billionaires aren’t the answer.
The combined wealth of America’s 657 billionaires grew by $1.3 trillion (or 44.6 percent) during the pandemic. Jeff Bezos, with $183.9 billion, became the richest man in the U.S. and the world. Larry Page, cofounder of Google, added $11.8 billion to his $94.3 billion fortune, and Sergey Brin, Google’s other cofounder, added $11.4 billion. Yet billionaires’ taxes are lower than ever. Wealthy Americans today pay one-sixth the rate of taxes their counterparts paid in 1953.
Lesson: To afford everything the nation needs, raise taxes at the top.
8. Government can be the solution.
Ronald Reagan’s famous quip — “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” — can now officially be retired. Donald Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” succeeded in readying vaccines faster than most experts thought possible, and Biden got it into more arms more quickly than any vaccination program in history.
Furthermore, the $900 billion in aid Congress passed in late December prevented millions from losing unemployment benefits and helped sustain the recovery when it was faltering. The $1.9 trillion that Democrats pushed through Congress in March will help the U.S. achieve something it failed to achieve after the 2008-2009 recession: a robust recovery.
Lesson: Government must play an active role solving other fundamental problems — ending poverty, reducing inequality, battling climate change and fighting systemic racism.
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.