One Year In: COVID-19 Has Changed Us Forever. Here's How

By: John Donovan  | 

Los Angeles Zoo
So much has changed in the last 12 months, but a few things are returning to "normal." The Los Angeles Zoo reopened in February after closing for the second time during the pandemic. VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

The "Great Pandemic of 2020." Let's hope future historians don't eventually have to tack more years onto that title. These last 12 months have touched virtually every person on the planet in some way and affected virtually every aspect of our lives. As of early March 2021, the roughly one-year-anniversary of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, more than 115 million cases have been reported worldwide and more than 2.5 million people globally have died.

In the United States, though, more than 518,000 have died in 12 months. To put that number in perspective, an estimated 675,000 died from the 1918 influenza pandemic, which is the equivalent of about 2.2 million people in today's population, according to Justin Fox at Bloomberg. Fewer Americans died in combat during World War I (117,000), World War II (292,000) and the Vietnam War (58,220) combined. HIV/AIDS, another infectious disease, has killed an estimated 700,000 Americans since it was first diagnosed in 1981 — that's a 40 year timespan.

With all that sickness and death from COVID-19 has come incalculable destruction. To individuals and families. To small towns and teeming cities. To societies. To nations. These are historic times that we must never forget. The pandemic, in ways terribly obvious and as-yet unseen, has changed the very way we live. Here are some of the ways how.

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1. How We Work

Thanks to Zoom and other internet-based videoconferencing programs, office buildings once packed with white-collar types now stand eerily empty. Sweats and leggings have become standard workwear. Meetings are now virtual, commutes passé. For the millions of brave Americans unable to work from home, though — in fields like health care, food services, grocery and drug stores, law enforcement, education and many others — their jobs literally have become about life and death. If, that is, they survived an economy that, in America, shed more than 18 million jobs in the spring of 2020 alone. How we work, where we work, what we do, how much we get paid — even after we finally whip this dreaded virus — may never be the same.

work from home
Many of us worked at home during 2020, as office buildings in downtowns sat empty and cases of COVID-19 skyrocketed.
Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

2. How We Socialize

Because of the general nastiness of the coronavirus and how we fight it (Keep your distance! Wash your hands! Wear a mask! Wear two! Avoid crowds! No hugging!), our social lives have been reduced to staying in or hanging out in small, 6-feet-apart (2-meter) social circles. Bars, theaters, sporting events, parties, concerts? Only the rabidly stubborn or hard-headed non-believers would think of going. Plus, many of those gatherings have been legally limited in size anyway, if allowed at all. Yes, we're traveling again — after a brutal hit on the travel industry — but going out just isn't the same. It's likely to be a long time until it is. Welcome to the new social scene: Subscriptions for streaming services (like Netflix and Disney+) have soared more than 50 percent since this time last year.

3. Our Home Life

For many, our homes have become not only our offices, but also school classrooms, personal playgrounds and family sanctuaries. Do-it-yourselfprojects are up 74 percent in June 2020 as we converted basements into gyms (get a piece of that exercise bike market), playrooms into Netflix home theaters (big TVs), and backyards into oases (pools). The housing market, when you could find a house in 2020, was on fire as mortgage rates hovered near record lows, though that won't make it any cheaper for anyone in a cramped apartment who longs for new digs in 2021. Whether we'll feel the itch to shed our home-bodiness again when we can gather in groups outside of our new, improved castles ... we'll see.

4. Our Schools

Some of the great debates of the pandemic — a verifiable side effect of the virus is endless debate — surround education; when to close schools for fear of transmitting the virus, when to safely open them, how to open them, and how to effectively use distance learning when needed. How does all this affect school kids? Nothing is settled yet. "Five years from now," Randall Picker, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School said on an episode of the podcast "COVID 2025: Our World in the Next 5 Years." "We'll be beyond the medical crisis, beyond the economic crisis, and we'll be able to take this technology and this period of experimentation [with online learning] and we will have figured out really how to put it to use." Until then, argue on.

virtual school
Schools across the globe shut down in spring 2020 and teaching went virtual. Many have yet to fully reopen. Students have struggled to learn remotely using digital tools like Zoom, while many teachers have been pushed to the brink to keep up with the difficult demands on their schedules.
Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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5. Our Families

Families unable to visit their loved ones in nursing homes because of the fear of passing on the virus; arguments between spouses; virtual funerals conducted without mourners; child care headaches; sharing working space with family members; the inability to just get away. The pandemic has been hard on families, no matter the home setup. Zoom, Skype and the like have helped maintain long-distance relationships, and many of us now (with apologies to Stephen Stills) better appreciate the ones we're with. But the lack of simply being present, especially for holidays, weddings, graduations and funerals sparks painful consequences that may never be resolved.

6. Our Mental Health

A study in April 2020 focusing on more than 19,000 American adults found that they were eight times more likely to fit the criteria of being in serious mental distress than a similar group in 2018. A study of 59 countries in spring 2020 reported significant levels of moderate-to-severe depression and anxiety. "Myriad consequences of the pandemic, including challenges paying bills, inability to access food, conflict in the home, and separation from loved ones were linked with poorer mental health," the second study found. Frontline workers — especially doctors and nurses who risk exposure, work grueling hours and face pandemic denial — have been especially affected. Zoom fatigue is a real thing, too. Once this thing is over, we'll need some time to heal.

COVID-19 vaccine
One year in and the United States has three vaccines against COVID-19, including a single-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson that has shown 85 percent protection against severe disease and can be stored at regular refrigeration temperatures.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

7. Our Communities

Smallbusiness has been hammered by pandemic shutdowns and by shoppers and restaurant-goers fearful of venturing out in public. More than 110,000 eating and drinking joints in the nation have closed down, many for good. Some nimble local restaurants have been able to survive, for now, on delivery and takeout alone. But limits on dining-in continue to sting. Mom and pop retail shops remain in a losing fight with the big boys (Amazon and Walmart, though, are cleaning up). And local governments are hurting for revenue. Will the little guys bounce back? That's anybody's guess, too.

dining out covid
The restaurant industry has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Many are trying to survive any way possible. Here, a restaurant in Washington, D.C. has installed enclosed plastic domes outside so diners can feel safe and warm while eating on the patio.
DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images

8. Our Politics

Where in years past tragedies have united us, the pandemic has only laid bare our differences. Everything is politicized, from the very origin of the virus to the accuracy of its toll, to the efficacy of wearing masks, to reopening schools, closing businesses, getting vaccines, relief bills, how we vote ... and none of that back-biting looks like it's going to be settled any time soon. No wonder we're drinking more.

9. The Wealth Gap

The pandemic has exposed gaping inequities in America's social structure, from health care and education to simple access to technology. The gap is most evident on the economic front. Late last year, whites had recovered more than half of the jobs they lost early in the pandemic; Blacks had recovered about a third. The worst part of that: Out of work, out of money and behind on bills, people are going hungry. Some estimates claim that 50 million Americans, including 17 million kids, wondered how to get their next meal in 2020. For the first time ever, some 40 percent of Americans didn't have reliable access to enough affordable food. Food pantries were busier than ever, supplying more than 4 billion meals from March through October 2020. Few signs show the crisis slowing; nobody sees it ending.

COVID-19 vaccine
The pandemic has exposed gaping inequities in America's health care system. A Black American is almost three times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 and and nearly twice as likely to die from it than a white American. The stats are even worse for Hispanic and Native Americans.
Jon Cherry/Getty Images

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10. How We Talk

Flattening the curve. Staying in your bubble. Achieving herd immunity. Social distancing. COVID. Anthony Fauci. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Operation Warp Speed. Deborah Birx. Scott Atlas. Clusters. Spikes. Super-spreader events. Quarantines. Isolation. N-95s. PPEs. If you don't know every one of those pandemic terms by heart — and the meaning of the word "pandemic," while we're at it — come out from under your rock already.

11. Our Planet

The pandemic largely has been good for the planet. The slowdown in economic activity has helped to lower greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in cleaner air, cleaner water and less noise pollution. With fewer travelers, some of the world's more tourist-trodden destinations have been given a chance to recover. We may have more medical waste out there, and we've all seen too many discarded masks in the street. But maybe this tragedy will teach us to appreciate this fragile blue ball that we inhabit. Maybe?

12. How We Help Each Other

Throughout the deadliest pandemic in more than a century, goodness was still evident. "We have seen people driving extraordinary efforts rooted in a pursuit of equity, community and shared humanity," Asha Curran, co-founder and CEO of GivingTuesday, said in a press statement. On just one day in December, GivingTuesday collected more than $2.4 billion, more than all but one American philanthropic group gave in all of 2019. The pandemic shuttered some in-person, big-money fundraisers in 2020, which hurt. And many volunteers were either turned away or stayed away, for fear of spreading the virus. But charitable giving still grew by 7.6 percent through the first three quarters of the year. The number of donors rose by almost 12 percent. Hope lives.

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