Opinion | Why America can’t recover from that first terrible year of Covid

Covid numbers recently went up again. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this once again monthly death toll by the thousands. Mask requirements they returned to public medical facilities and nursing homes in New York City. The presidential race is in full swing and, just like in 2020, the stakes feel existential. All of this makes me feel like I’m revisiting a past that I never actually left.

I’m not the only one who struggles with that feeling. In other ways, 2020 feels like another lifetime. The pandemic is over; we moved on with our lives. Yet, by considerable margins, people continue to say they feel alienated, vulnerable, insecure. Only now is it becoming clear how little we understood what the United States experienced during that unforgettable year and how profoundly it shaped us.

I have come to think of our current condition as a kind of long Covid, a social disease that has intensified a host of chronic problems and instilled a belief that the institutions we have been taught to rely on are not worthy of our trust . The result is a lasting crisis in American civic life. Just look at the election cycle we’re about to fall into: it feels like the world has turned upside down several times, yet here we are faced with the prospect of another contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, as if the country hasn’t moved forward of one centimeter. Everything has changed, yet almost nothing has changed.

In 2020, I learned about Daniel Presti, an affable and energetic 33-year-old, who was trying to build a new business called Mac’s Public House, just a few miles from his childhood home on Staten Island.

Thanks, he said, to the inexplicably slow pace of the New York State Liquor Authority, it took nearly a year to open, but he and his business partner, Keith McAlarney, used the time to make the bar as nice as possible. The idea was to make Mac a local commons. No political speech. No news on TV. “Keith and I are as far from politics as you can get,” Presti would later tell me. “We won’t go in there.”

In March, when Covid-19 hit New York City, the same state government that took years to issue a liquor license took just days to demand that the newly opened Mac’s operations cease. Mr. Presti understood the threat and accepted the decision. What he didn’t expect was that the pub would remain closed or restricted, on and off, for more than a year. Nor that because his business was new the government would offer so little financial support.

Mr Presti spent the year in a state of anxiety and stress. No one in a position of power would listen to his pleas for help, and the rules for bars and restaurants kept changing.

His frustration was all too common. On a wide range of outcomes, including many that were less visible at the time, this country has fared much worse during the Covid pandemic than comparable nations. Mistrust, division, and disorganized leadership have contributed to the magnitude of our negative health outcomes. As for our ongoing anguish, the standard explanation is a uniquely American loneliness. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared it a epidemic in his right.

The truth, however, is that there is no concrete evidence that Americans are more alone than ever. Our social models have changed, of course. Yet a major recent survey shows that Americans are now older definitely less lonely compared to three years ago; a recent one peer-reviewed study reports that middle-aged Americans describe themselves as less lonely than they did 20 years ago. Loneliness is more pervasive among young Americans, but so are the rates there collapsed since 2020. Logically, we should feel better. Why can’t we shake this thing?

Because loneliness has never been the main problem. It was, rather, the widespread feeling among so many different people that they had been left to deal with the crisis alone. How do you balance all the competing demands of health, money, sanity? Where do you find the tests, the masks, the medicines? How do you go to work, or even work from home, when your kids can’t go to school?

The answer was always the same: figure it out. Stimulus checks and small business loans have helped. But while other countries have built trust and solidarity, America – both during and after 2020 – has left millions of people to fend for themselves.

Now the Biden administration is baffled by why Americans don’t feel more optimistic despite all the good economic news, and some conservative groups are frustrated that Republican voters remain loyal to a candidate who has been accused of 91 crimes. Voters refuse to behave in the way some say would be rational. But the inequalities exposed by the pandemic have only worsened over time. For millions of Americans, distrust seems like the most rational state.


Over the past four years, I’ve met New Yorkers from every borough who felt abandoned by our major institutions when they needed a steady hand: a political aide from the Bronx who didn’t trust the vaccines she was promoting; an elementary teacher in Manhattan’s Chinatown whose students were viewed with suspicion by those who feared the Asian flu; and Mr. Presti, who spent months searching for help or answers as his work life and dreams for the future fell apart. In November he and his partner kept the bar open past the city’s 10pm curfew. Shortly thereafter they declared their business an “autonomous zone.” He went on Fox News to express his frustration with kids being beaten by big government, forced to sacrifice their livelihood. Fed up with institutions that didn’t help him, he became distrustful of scientific authorities and impatient with fellow citizens who seemed too weak to question those in power. At a certain point, Mr. Presti began to define himself as a freedom fighter.

The very different people I spoke to that year all had one thing in common: a sense that, in the wake of Covid, all the larger institutions they had grown to trust had let them down. In the most precarious moments of their lives, they discovered that there was no system in place to help them.

Nearly four years later, the situation is, if anything, worse.

Nursing homes across the country, where bad working conditions they were connected to higher Covid mortality levels, run short of staffleaving elderly resident friars more vulnerable than they should be. Hunger and food insecurity they remain heartbreaking emergencies. Students they haven’t fully returned to school. Congress passed the Child Poverty Reduction Act of 2021, one of the most effective anti-poverty measures in decades. Then, a year later, Congress put an end to it, prompting some five million young people fall into conditions of extreme financial need.

When everything was uncertain and everyone’s future was at stake, we came to the precipice of a moral turning point, and then we walked back.

Look how we have all become accustomed to the term “essential worker”, an apparent term of respect that instead condemned people to work in manifestly dangerous conditions. The adoption of that term made visible something we now cannot hide: In the United States, the people we rely on most to make our world work are the people who treated as disposable.


If social isolation wasn’t the biggest problem, most people I interviewed that year said so I felt connected to friends and family, no matter how distant they were – we might call the biggest problem structural isolation: abandoned by employers, deprived of shared purpose, denied care. The combined effect sent a strong message: Individual lives were no longer worth as much. (Elected officials bring to the air and suggest that the elderly sacrifice themselves to save the economy? Yes, it really happened.)

People treated each other accordingly. We all remember the viral videos of people shouting at each other in supermarkets and on public transport. Violent crime has increased. Reckless driving also emerged, but it only occurred in the United States.

The reasons for American exceptionalism become even more pressing in an election year, when, as in a public health crisis, presidents can try to unite people or try to turn them against each other. And they can send a powerful message about whose lives matter.

In 2021, Daniel Presti had been arrested twice for defying the city’s laws and becoming something of a celebrity. When we spoke earlier that year, he told me that he and his partner were not “far-right guys.” But he soon appeared on social media telling followers: “Don’t give up your guns. “Never.” and advising “ALL EYES ON THE ARIZONA AUDIT.” That October, when New York’s mayor announced new vaccination mandates for city workers, he he wrote: “We are currently in a cold war and we are the soldiers with our own way of life under attack. Don’t expect anyone to come and save you. We are on the front line. “We are the defenders of freedom.”

Early in our conversations, he had friended me on Facebook. Then I found myself friendless and he stopped responding to my texts and calls. His The last activity on Twitter it was in December 2022, when she reposted an article shared by right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza alleging that Michelle Obama helped get Trump kicked off Twitter.


A few weeks ago I decided to contact Daniel Presti again. I wanted to know how things look for him these days and how he has rebuilt his life. We’re both New Yorkers; Perhaps now, with the bitter fights over bar closures and mandatory vaccines many years behind us, we might find common ground again.

I sent Mr. Presti a couple of messages but received no response. I called, with the same result. I tracked down his former business partner, who said he would pass on my message. I thanked him and wished him good luck.

I don’t know why Mr. Presti chose not to answer me. He may simply have more pressing matters to attend to. But the lack of a solution seems fitting, in a way, to a relationship that has taught me so much about how this country failed people in 2020 and how these problems continue today. I hope he and I reconnect one day; for now, the silence is a disheartening reminder that in America and even in my great city, social divisions have deepened. Today, as we approach the 2024 elections, the wounds of 2020 remain open, our conflicts unresolved. And the cold war that Presti warned about could soon reach its climax.