Why the US is trapped in an unending state of post-COVID "recovery"

WHO says the pandemic is over. A disaster resilience professor says otherwise

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published May 15, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

A Covid-19 testing tent sits along a Manhattan street on March 09, 2023 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A Covid-19 testing tent sits along a Manhattan street on March 09, 2023 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

An unprecedented chapter in global public health has drawn to a close — at least according to international and U.S. public health officials. The seemingly interminable thrall of the COVID-19 pandemic, which held the world in a state of alarm for three harrowing years, is being declared over.

As of this month, public health organizations around the world have been called upon by the World Health Organization to end their pandemic public health emergencies.

"For more than a year the pandemic has been on a downward trend," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. "This trend has allowed most countries to return to life as we knew it before COVID-19."

Yet some public health experts attest that the declaration belies public health data — which suggest not only that novel mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19 are still spreading in pockets around the world, but also that the US has yet to recover in the true definition of the word.

In the United States, the COVID-19 public health emergency officially ended on May 11. This will result in logistical changes as it relates to federal aid. For example, COVID-19 tests and treatments are no longer guaranteed to be free. The CDC will no longer track transmission.

Yet the coronavirus has not only taken lives, but also changed our way of living. Hence, this declaration doesn't necessarily mean that a previous way of life will snap back to "normal times."

Researchers like Daniel Aldrich, who is a professor of political science and Director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program at Northeastern University and studies the characteristics of resilient communities, say the U.S. could now be stuck in a phase of recovery — because it wasn't "resilient" enough to overcome the adversities of the pandemic in the first place.

A baseline, or the lowest level of resilience, would simply mean to be able to resume some kind of normalcy again afterwards.

What's the difference between recovery and resilience? Resilience, Aldrich said, is "the ability of an individual, institution or community to go through a shock and ideally transform." A baseline, or the lowest level of resilience, would simply mean to be able to resume some kind of normalcy again afterwards. While vague, Aldrich pointed to Japan's Tohoku earthquake in 2011 which caused a tsunami. Rebuilding homes on the coast wouldn't necessarily be an example of resilience in the communities affected by the tsunami; rather, moving people uphill, building bigger sea walls, and "changing the system" to make future disasters less damaging would go beyond recovery and define resilience.

As a researcher studying resilience, post-disaster, he'd ask businesses about the numbers of clients they've had returned. Cities, he added, can measure how many cars are in the streets, how many kids are catching school buses, what is referred to as "mobility data." If these numbers match those from pre-disaster levels, that's a display of societal resilience. Aldrich said population is another example of a tangible way that resilience can be assessed.

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When considered in terms of resilience, American cities don't stack up very well. As the U.S. Census Bureau found, the growth of what were considered to be the fastest growing cities in 2019 slowed down during the pandemic. Six of the cities on the declining list were in California. New York City's population decline in 2021 was six times greater than what the city experienced in 2019. Chicago exhibited a similar decline.

One study published in JAMA Network Open found that during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, people took fewer steps; these steps have yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels. "On average, people are taking about 600 fewer steps per day than before the pandemic began," said study author Dr. Evan Brittain, associate professor of cardiovascular medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, via CNN. "To me, the main message is really a public health message — raising awareness that COVID-19 appears to have had a lasting impact on people's behavioral choices when it comes to activity."

"There's still a measurable impact, that shows that we have not been as resilient, in terms of mobility."

Aldrich said he "100 percent" thinks the U.S. is stuck in a phase of recovery. And said he wouldn't say COVID-19 is over.

"There's still a measurable impact, that shows that we have not been as resilient, in terms of mobility," he said. "Because we're literally walking less, we're staying closer to home."

While loneliness was already considered to be an epidemic before the pandemic, the Surgeon General's Advisory on Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation states that the COVID-19 pandemic advanced trends in declining social participation. In 2021, 49 percent of Americans reported having three or fewer friends; only 27 percent reported the same in 1990. One study found that there was a 16 percent decrease in network size between June 2019 to June 2020, highlighting the way the pandemic caused people to lose touch with their social networks. Despite technology, a quarter of Americans reported they feel less close to close family members now compared with before the pandemic.

"Yet, almost half of Americans (49%) in 2021 reported having three or fewer close friends — only about a quarter (27%) reported the same in 1990," the advisory read. "Social connection continued to decline during the COVID-19 pandemic, with one study finding a 16% decrease in network size from June 2019 to June 2020 among participants."

Cat Moore, the director of belonging at the University of Southern California, told Salon she's seen students be more "intentional" about their social connections since the pandemic. That may be contributing to the difference in quantity.

"I do feel like students overall are finding a new way that's comfortable for them to socialize," Moore said. "What I see is students are being a lot more self-aware about what kinds of relationships and groups they want to invest in because I haven't seen too much social energy bounce back, and so I think people are being a lot more intentional about how they're spending their time and with whom."

However, in order for a society to be resilient, Aldrich said it must have strong social capital, which is a term used to describe the strength of relationships of people in a society. As Aldrich's research has found, social capital — not physical infrastructure — is more important to a community after going through a disaster. And it can be the best predictor on how well a society can handle catastrophe. In order to have strong social capital, a society needs to have a strong sense of trust, which the U.S. is lacking.

"I think part of it also is, you know, both sides of the aisle don't really trust each other to the degree they've done in the past," Aldrich said. "And if you don't trust the government and don't really trust people nearby, then there isn't much space left."

Pew Research Center shows trust in public government in the U.S. is currently near historic lows— which has been on a decline since the 1960s.

"Over the last 85 years now, we have really seen a tremendous decline" in social activity, Aldrich said. This includes basic things like Americans "leaving their home, putting themselves out there joining a club, joining a bowling league," he added. 

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Covid-19 Disasters Reporting Resilience World Health Organization