The long-term effects of the coronavirus

July 7th, 2020

Beyond survival 

Like the majority of people who contract the novel coronavirus, 39-year-old Justin Wilhite survived. But the story didn’t end there. “Here I am 86 days from my very first symptom and I’m still dealing with it,” he told a local news station in late May. After four emergency room visits he was diagnosed with COVID-19 induced pleurisy, a chronic and painful inflammation of the lining of the lungs. 

While researchers are still racing to limit the spread and understand the short-term effects of this new virus, disturbing stories and preliminary studies about the longer-term effects are already beginning to emerge. Some patients — it is far too soon to know how many — are experiencing a debilitating and incomplete recovery, with reports of damage to lungs, hearts, blood vessels and even diminished neurological function. For many people, survival has been only half the battle. 12 weeks after his initial infection, one man told the BBC he was still having heart problems. “I’ve gone to bed wondering whether I would wake up the next morning.” 

Most of the public information about the coronavirus outbreak covers basic metrics: tests run, new cases, hospitalizations, fatalities. You either have the virus or you don’t. You die from it or you don’t. Reality, however, is more complicated. Someone who has a ventilator removed after a month has survived, but may take much longer to fully recover. One critical care doctor imagined patients asking themselves, weeks after release, what actually happened to them. There will be “a wave of survivors who are going to have really difficult psychological symptoms.” 

Survival is less an outcome than a process. It changes us — biologically, economically and socially. While we look for signs that people, institutions and economies have “recovered,” whether this be measured in a rebound in consumer spending or a decline in hospitalizations, these metrics miss the drastic transformations that survival often requires. 

Getting through it 

In June there was some surprisingly good news about the economy. Despite a truly massive wave of layoffs starting in March, the unemployment rate ticked down in May. Furthermore, household income went up in May and the poverty rate decreased thanks largely to the expanded unemployment insurance benefits and the stimulus payments included in the CARES Act. 

Despite this momentary good news, the employment market is nowhere near recovered and the trauma of layoffs goes beyond the loss of household income. Changing fields or careers can be financially, physically and psychologically taxing. As old competencies and skills lose their value, new ones must be acquired, and people re-enter employment nearer the bottom of the ladder. Women, in particular, have suffered job losses at a disproportionately high rate, jeopardizing career trajectories and income prospects in the long run, even while taking on much of the burden of extended home childcare. 

Some sectors of the economy have seen a hastening of long-term decline and these jobs are unlikely to come back at all. “The economy that does come back is likely to look quite different from the one that closed,” a New York Times analysis concluded. 

Looking further down the road, a steep drop in tax revenues from this spring will soon be reflected in public budgets, and a second wave of public-sector employment loss seems virtually inevitable. Teachers, first responders, civil servants and contractors are all likely to face significant reductions in jobs, pay, or both. These jobs do not bounce back quickly. It took years for public employment to return to its pre-crisis level after the last recession in 2008 and 2009. 

A long convalescence 

It’s hard to say with any certainty how much the protests against police brutality that started in late May were amplified by the largely failed attempts of federal and state governments to restrain the spread of the coronavirus, but it’s difficult to argue that it was not a factor. Real public failures combined with imagined conspiracy theories surrounding the coronavirus era may be accelerating the already steep decline in the share of Americans who exhibit high levels of social trust. 

Some public health officials have been targets of outlandish conspiracy theories and violent threats. Others have risked their credibility by changing guidance on masks, mass outdoor gatherings, or by crafting guidelines for reopening that were subsequently ignored by the governments that requested them. Parents quite reasonably don’t know whether to trust the decisions of state and local school authorities that plan to open while the outbreak is still raging. 

By now a long and fragile period of adjustment seems inevitable for every part of our public life. The pandemic won’t end public schools or health departments, just as the Black Lives Matter protests won’t end public policing. The institutions will survive, but their relationships to the people they are supposed to serve will, perhaps inevitably, be transformed. Public trust, once lost, is very hard to win back. 

Nevertheless, I have been heartened in my conversations with colleagues about reopening our churches. So many have voiced a sense of responsibility toward their members and communities as a reason to proceed with extreme caution. Many churches, like other businesses, face powerful emotional and financial incentives to bring things “back to normal.” Yet once we accept that “normal” may never come back — that we are unavoidably moving into something new, something different than anything we’ve known — we have the opportunity to make our choices and actions a witness. 

Like everyone else, churches have already adjusted to a new reality and will continue to do so, often painfully, for a long time to come. However, unlike many, we are able to express in our words, actions and stories the meaning of these choices. It is easy to forget that only a few months ago, Americans peaceably and, for the most part, voluntarily took on great sacrifices to keep each other safe from a virus we did not understand and could not cure. Even if our major institutions squandered that goodwill, it was real. Now that goodwill has to be turned towards caring for each other during a long and difficult convalescence. 


COVID-19 and information 

Journalism and the news media have been a field particularly hard hit by pandemic era layoffs. A long-running decline in this industry was hastened by a sudden collapse in advertising, much of which was automated to avoid showing up next to any mention of the coronavirus. In the face of these financial setbacks, local and national news organizations have been doing indispensable work, both passing along the latest scientific discoveries as well as tracking the outbreak and its effects and many outlets have dropped their paywalls for coronavirus coverage. 

At the same time, social media has gained in power as traffic and advertising revenue flows to places like Facebook. Unlike traditional media, which is mostly governed by editorial standards that weed out the most egregious factual errors, social media has proven to be very fertile ground for the dissemination of bad information. This can have dangerous real-world consequences, including something simple like people taking fewer precautions because they believe fears about the virus are overstated to acts as extreme as making threats or engaging in outright violence. 

One long-term impact of this period will likely be a consolidation of media power in fewer, larger companies like Facebook (which also owns Instagram) and YouTube (owned by Google). Practicing information hygiene — investigating claims, looking for sources, relying on reputable outlets — will be harder and yet more urgent. It’s worth thinking now about what sources you want to rely on, patronize with your media budget and share in your networks.

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