With the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lifting most restrictions on mask wearing, the symbolic end to the pandemic has arrived. Economic re-opening is underway. Social gatherings are once again acceptable. Grandparents can see their grandchildren once more or, in some cases, for the first time.
There is much to celebrate. Yet there is also much to reflect upon, not least the deaths of millions worldwide, as well as the deaths and sufferings still to come of those who reside in less fortunate circumstances than the majority of vaccinated Americans.
At Jackson Hole Economics we’ve written and published extensively on the pandemic, covering angles as diverse as its economic and financial impacts, to the implications for public health, mental health, education and corporate responsibility.
In what follows, JHE co-founders Alex Friedman and Larry Hatheway share personal observations on what they learned—about themselves, their communities and the broader world—from the pandemic.
What did I learn about myself from the pandemic?
Larry: In many ways, what I learned is probably true for a lot of people. I learned how to Zoom, though not very well. I became a better cook, though that isn’t saying very much. I learned how to be a better husband and father, which was long overdue. But mostly, I learned a lot about myself. I learned how to deal with depression, to open up about it, to seek out help even though I felt shame in admitting something I thought of as a weakness, not an illness. It sounds odd, but I feel a sense of gratitude or even privilege for that experience. It wasn’t easy. Not for me, not for my incredibly supportive wife, nor for others who may not have known what I was experiencing but could nevertheless see how it diminished what I could do for them.
Alex: I am still trying to unpack the many learnings from this last year. But a few understandings already stand out. Those of us with families surrounding us during the pandemic were so very fortunate. And yet, to be forced to stay away from our broader families, and our friends, is a stark reminder that being with those we love is by far the most important part of life. I also came to realize what I surely knew as a child – life is better outside. We are not meant to be cooped up inside, and the simple pleasures found in taking a walk are priceless. And even better is walking with a dog – man’s best friend took on new importance over the last year.
As writers, what did the pandemic teach you?
Larry: Being cooped up with less to do gave us both more time to read and write. Whether it helped my writing, I will leave for others to judge. But writing itself inevitably begs the most important questions for any author: Who are my readers and does anyone care what I have to say? JHE is a young organization, and we struggle with those questions daily. Who reads us? How can we be relevant? How can we reach our audience? The pandemic gave us more time to ask those questions, but not enough time to answer them.
Alex: It taught me that an epochal event like the one we all experienced this past year is, for all of its tragedy, also an incredible motivator for writing. Not all of the 100+ pieces we wrote were about elements of the pandemic, but the majority probably were. Some flowed more easily than others, as is inevitable for any writer, but we did not want for inspiration. Covid-19 touched all aspects of the political economy subjects that we try to cover, from economics to politics to the environment. It also inspired me to team up with a talented writer named Angela Meng, to write a children’s book about the pandemic called The Big Thing: Brave Bea. We tried to explain this period of time through the eyes of a five-year old girl and to remind children about the silver linings of even the hardest events. The book was given away for free and it was gratifying to see it reach children all around the world.
Apart from lockdowns, did the pandemic touch you personally?
Larry: I was tremendously fortunate. I did not contract Covid-19 and nor did anyone in my immediate family. My wife’s aunt, unfortunately, died of Covid. She resided in an assisted-living facility, within the memory unit for individuals with severe dementia or Alzheimer’s. She lived 2,500 miles away, but I suspect we could not have been able to visit her even if we lived around the corner. We were blessed that she did not appear to suffer, as so many have.
In a different sense, I fear that the pandemic may have numbed me. It seems an inescapable phenomenon of humans, perhaps stemming from a defense mechanism without which we might be rendered helpless, but when deaths become statistics, we become removed from the reality of human suffering—of those that die and those that live in anguish. Scenes of ICU’s or, more recently, of death in the streets of Delhi, serve to remind us that this is about humans, not numbers. Yet I cannot escape some sense of guilt that I have not known true suffering but have only witnessed it from a safe distance.
Alex: Like Larry, I am blessed that no one in my family contracted Covid-19. But it inevitably touched me in different ways, as it did so many others. I found it very hard to be away from my aging parents and not to see my sister. My wife could not visit her father as he fought a difficult cancer. We both struggled with guilt, sadness, lethargy, and in my case, depression. My daughter celebrated her first birthday without friends. I would often find myself wondering how this little, magical creature was experiencing her new world with so much isolation from other toddlers.
What will you tell your young or unborn (grand)-children about the pandemic when they are old enough to ask?
Larry: Gosh, what I think I will say today and what I may say in the future surely differ a great deal. With time comes wisdom, based on reflection and context. But as a preliminary answer, I would say that the tragedy of illness, in whatever form, can only be addressed in two ways. First, as a medical matter, diagnosis, treatment and control are matters for science. The health of each of us, and our species as a whole, requires that we understand the physical world around us, in order to make it more habitable for any of us. Second, coping with illness, disability and death is only possible if we can count on the love, respect, charity and goodwill of others. Calamities may be caused by viruses and micro-organisms, but they are overcome by minds and hearts.
Alex: I will tell them that life can change in an instant. We are all taught this about life for ourselves, but I had not understood that it can change so quickly for our whole species as well. I will tell them to treasure human contact, for without it everything loses its color. I will tell them about the bravery of countless people who are often anonymous, from health care workers to those in grocery stores and driving delivery trucks. I will tell them that we are all connected at the most fundamental level and that our existence literally depends on what others do. I will tell them to treasure their time with elderly family members and never, ever take it for granted.
What do you think America learned from the pandemic?
Larry: I hope a lot, I fear it may be too little. America’s greatest strengths are hope, optimism and charity. We are a nation that believes in the future and our ability to shape it to our benefit. We lend others a hand when they are in need. But we are also defined by what we need to do better. Americans have less appreciation for community than other cultures. We believe we can do it on our own. We underappreciate that our successes depend on social cohesion, on public health and public education. That our own health and well-being depend on clean air and water, access to open space, diversity, neighborhoods free of crime and humility about our past. I would hope that America grew as a community during a year of distress. Perhaps in the fullness of time that growth will become apparent, because sadly the evidence today points in the other direction.
Alex: I think America learned that even with all its wealth and military power, an invisible virus can bring our country to its knees. We learned that we are fragile on every level, as individuals, as communities, as a nation and as a government. All of it is tenuous. Sadly, I do not think this pandemic united out fractured country. I had hoped that a true crisis might bring us together, as WWII did, but we remain a deeply divided country. Perhaps the silver lining to this division is that many of our local communities became more cohesive. We turned to our neighbors, towns and counties for our survival. Perhaps in this way we took a few steps in the right direction towards more future unity.
Elsewhere, you’ve written extensively about the pandemic and public policy, as have your JHE contributors. What one or two key conclusions would you draw from that writing?
Larry: For me a key conclusion is that government works. It may not always work well, nor is it always equipped to do what we might want. But it works.
I am struck by how attitudes about government have shifted during my professional lifetime. During the 1980s, when I was in graduate school and working on my economics PhD, neo-classical economics reigned supreme. Building on the teachings of Hayek and (Milton) Friedman, discretionary monetary and fiscal policy, government regulation and much else in the public sector was under assault. A consensus was forming that simply cutting taxes, deregulating the economy, ending the power of unions and promoting free trade would solve society’s problems. Today that seems far-fetched, but one had to live it to believe it. It found political expression in Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but its influence extended to center-left politicians like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair or Gerhard Schroeder. The object was to dismantle or sharply reduce the powers of government, rejecting everything from Keynesian counter-cyclical policy to discretionary monetary policy, welfare systems and financial regulation.
In the aftermath of the global financial crisis and now the pandemic, we have learned how the immense powers of monetary and fiscal policy can be deployed to prevent sharp downturns from turning into great depressions. We know that policy makers are not prescient—the Fed has made grave analytical and forecast errors during my lifetime—but they can be very effective in preventing bad outcomes from mushrooming into existential ones.
I have always placed faith in the institutions of our democracy. Not because they are perfect, but because they represent the will of the people and because within them—at the Fed, Treasury, CDC and countless other agencies and entities in the US and other democracies around the world—toil qualified professionals who take their democratically endowed powers for what they are, a commitment to serve those in need.
Alex: During the height of the pandemic, we (and many of our contributors) argued that the U.S. government needed to pull out all the stops and that deficits were something to worry about another day. We pushed for the kind of expansive monetary and fiscal support we have seen, for the job of government is to protect its citizens above all else. Now, as the economic focus shifts to loudly voiced concerns about possible runaway inflation and attacks on past policy decisions, I am struck by how quickly we seem to forget where we were only months ago. Public policy is a blunt instrument. Solutions to crises inevitably plant the seeds of future crises. But that doesn’t mean revisionist history should condemn what was done in the fog of war. Six months ago, or even two months ago, inaction by our leaders would have been unacceptable. Happily, they swung the bat. Many times. Sometimes they connected, and sometimes not. But they didn’t sit it out.
What is the first thing you are going to do, now that you can get out and mingle more freely with others?
Larry: I’d like to walk up to strangers and pat them on the back, ask them how they are doing. But I suppose that would be a bit weird. So, instead, I will go back to grocery stores, pharmacies and my doctors’ offices without a mask, so they can see my smile, and I’ll thank them for being there for us.
Alex: Spend time with my parents and sister and friends. I so miss their hugs.
What lessons from the success in vaccinating Americans would you draw for other countries and other problems?
Larry: I’d begin with the success aspect. What has been accomplished is quite remarkable. Within weeks of diagnosis, the Covid-19 virus was well understood by the scientific community, which also did a tremendous job sharing that information worldwide. That was the critical first step toward developing effective vaccines, which were then produced and distributed in ways few could have imagined just a year ago. That success ought to embolden us where challenges, which today seem insurmountable, can be addressed and overcome. I am thinking in this sense well beyond pure medicine, things like overcoming ‘pandemics’ in deaths of despair, mass incarceration, racial division, intolerance and longstanding human conflict.
It seems to me that if we can mobilize resources to combat a deadly virus, then we can surely find it within ourselves to put down arms in Gaza and the West Bank, end the senseless destruction of life and property and acknowledge that two great civilizations share rich heritages, histories and humanity on one soil. Division never solves problems. Cannot each side make room for the other? Is accepting the challenge of peaceful co-existence and recognizing common humanity really more difficult than ending a pandemic?
Alex: I live in Wyoming, so I see that many people in my state are refusing vaccinations. We are not out of the woods yet; the virus could mutate in serious ways, so we need to take the pursuit of herd immunity very seriously. As successful as we have been in giving shots in our country, we have a long way to go. I hope other counties can do better in this regard. I hope science and public policy will triumph over politics.