Monday, May 9, 2022

Has Any Good Come From the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Introduction

The columnist Marilyn vos Savant was asked recently if anything good has come from the COVID-19 pandemic. Her answer was woefully incomplete so I aim to provide a better one here. Before I begin, though, I want to acknowledge that the pandemic has been tragic and of course I don’t want to minimize that. I merely hope that looking at silver linings can help us feel some gratitude.


Marilyn who??

Marilyn vos Savant is a columnist for Parade magazine, which comes tucked inside the Sunday paper. (Reading Parade is admittedly a waste of time, but the writing is so brain-dead simple, you can read the whole thing in about 40 seconds.) I’m often struck at how wrong Marilyn is, for being a supposed genius. For example, she explained the 40% college freshman attrition rate by saying, “In college, students must study subjects in which they have no interest and will never put to use.” This is both false and not the point. Students drop out because so many of our high schools don’t prepare students properly. (Given Marilyn’s defeatist attitude about college as an institution, should we be surprised she herself dropped out?)

On the topic of good coming from COVID, Marilyn acknowledged only that it might encourage people to wear masks when they’re sick. That was her whole answer, and it’s more of a hope (and probably a vain one) than a reality. And yet, there are a number of good things to come out of the pandemic, and the world’s response to it. What follows are just the more obvious silver linings.

The vaccine

Can you imagine the situation if there had never been a COVID-19 vaccine? Today, according to this article, the World Health Organization estimates that “nearly 15 million people were killed either by coronavirus or by its impact on overwhelmed health systems during the first two years of the pandemic.” But it would obviously have been worse without the vaccine. When’s the last time a vaccine was created on the fly, with a great reduction in governmental red tape, in time to save countless millions of lives? Hint: never. As described here, the worst five pandemics in history ended thus:

  • Plague of Justinian—“No one left to die”
  • Black Death—The invention of quarantine
  • The Great Plague of London—Quarantine
  • Smallpox—The first epidemic ended by a vaccine, but only after more than two centuries and countless millions dead
  • Cholera—The discovery that bacterial infection was spreading via contaminated drinking water

The COVID-19 vaccine totally saved our bacon. Without it, we might have no end in sight with countless dead, and/or we’d all still be sheltering-in-place. The vaccine represents a giant leap forward in the development of vaccines in general; a tremendously encouraging example of scientific cooperation; and, despite a lot of whining I choose to ignore, a triumph in governments’ ability to produce and deliver the vaccine at scale. Today, two thirds of Americans have received the vaccine.

Granted, I’m accustomed to great medical care because I live in an affluent community and have top notch insurance, but I was astonished to be able to get all four of my shots with very little trouble scheduling appointments, and moreover without having to provide any insurance information, and without paying a dime. For those of us sufficiently clear-headed to appreciate all this, it’s cause for cautious optimism that our healthcare system isn’t completely hopeless.

Telecommuting

At the outset of the pandemic, I worked for a division of a company that officially disallowed working from home. Nevertheless, due to a special dispensation  I’d managed to negotiate with my management, I was allowed to telecommute four days a week (and yes, it made me plenty nervous to be the outlier). From March 2000—when my employer went entirely remote due to the pandemic—straight through to last month, my colleagues and I only went in to an office once. Our entire division now follows a “hybrid” working model of visiting the office just twice a month.

I am super stoked because my commute, from the Berkeley area to Sunnyvale, was absolutely soul-crushing. My colleagues—all of them—are similarly delighted with the new arrangement. And this change is permanent—our former HQ building was sold off. (When we want to meet in person, we do “hoteling,” which means finding an empty cubicle in a corporate building shared among divisions.) The pandemic forced my employer to try out the telecommuting model, and it ended up working far better than anyone had expected.

This isn’t an isolated case. According to this article, before the pandemic only 6% of employed Americans worked from home; by May 2020, over a third were telecommuting. And as of last October, according to this article, 25% were still telecommuting all the time, and another 20% part of the time. And as of April, according to this article, roughly 25% to 35% of workers are still working from home, though only 10% cite COVID-19 as the reason.

Think of how many hours of commuting are saved. By my rough math, about 38 million Americans are teleworking who used to commute, and we’re each saving an average of an hour of commuting per day. Given that transportation is the largest contributor to carbon pollution, this telecommuting arrangement is a huge benefit to the environment … and it was brought about by the pandemic. How could Marilyn vos Savant not mention any of this? For a genius, she sure doesn’t seem very thoughtful.

Less illness outside of COVID-19

Did you find you seldom got sick during shelter-in-place? I used to dread the cold and flu season every year, but since March of 2020 I’ve only been sick twice, and both times it was pretty mild. There’s not a ton of nationwide reporting on minor colds and such, but this article notes a sharp drop in flu cases during the pandemic. So that’s been something of a silver lining.

Of course it’s hard to get excited about not getting sick when we were stuck indoors and tolerating masks all the time, but I think there may be lasting benefit. All that emphasis on hand washing could engender permanent behavioral change. I for one always wash my hands thoroughly when I get home from being out and about, and I’m not thinking about COVID per se when I’m doing it: it’s truly automatic. And who knows, maybe Marilyn is right and many sick people will be masking up from now on before they go out in public.

More outdoor recreation

Obviously COVID has killed a lot of Americans—almost a million, as of this posting—but heart disease (as described here) is the leading cause of death in this country, claiming about 659,000 lives every year. Unlike COVID, rampant heart disease in the U.S. shows no signs of going away. With the obesity epidemic closely tied to heart disease numbers, I think it’s significant that outdoor recreation increased significantly during the pandemic, even during shelter-in-place.

This was my own observation, from encountering crazy numbers of hikers along the trails in our regional parks, but is also substantiated by various data. For example, this article declares that “in 2020, 53 percent of Americans ages 6 and over participated in outdoor recreation at least once, the highest participation rate on record,” and that “7.1 million more Americans participated in outdoor recreation in 2020 than in the year prior.” And this article cites a 63% increase in bicycle sales in June 2020 vs. the previous year and a 31% increase in camping gear sales.

Perhaps some of this change will be permanent, now that so many more people have discovered the joy of being outdoors. Suffice to say the pandemic did a better job exposing people to exercise than PSAs ever did.

More outdoor dining

Where I live, in the Bay Area, lots of restaurants dealt with the shelter-in-place by creating outdoor seating areas, taking advantage of relaxed restrictions on things like putting tables on sidewalks or building seating areas out into the road, with barriers to protect diners. Traffic and parking have not become noticeably more difficult; what you mainly notice is how much fun people seem to be having and how many of them (about 100%, by my count) say things like, “How come nobody thought of this before?”

Actually, all kinds of people thought of this before but were stonewalled by the various interests who put motor vehicle accommodation above all other priorities. In this article, a state lawmaker from San Francisco explains:

If a city had come forward before the pandemic and said, “Let’s dramatically expand outdoor dining,” there would have been a lot of pushback. Like, “Whoa, what’s going to happen to the neighborhood? We need parking.” This is not a mysterious unknown now. Not everybody likes it, but most people do. They love it. And cities will go through their own local decision-making. In San Francisco, the mayor has proposed an ordinance to make the outdoor dining program permanent.

Silver linings for high school kids?

It is widely understood that the pandemic has been particularly hard on teenagers (and I even provided an albeit jocular coping guide in these pages). But in terms of silver linings, I’ll ask you to consider that not all teenagers would call the pandemic a purely negative thing. For example, I asked my younger daughter, a high school senior, if she feels like anything good came of the pandemic. She immediately replied, “I got to see my friends more.”

This probably sounds pretty close to unbelievable, but her explanation matches what I observed myself of her behavior. The shelter-in-place didn’t forbid people from getting together outdoors in small numbers, and for the better part of two years my daughter constantly went for long walks with her friends. Before the pandemic, most of these kids’ lives were booked solid with extracurricular activities so they seldom got to just hang out. To me, their less structured pandemic days looked like a time machine, taking these kids back to my generation when kids did what they felt like instead of only what would look good on their college apps.

Obviously I won’t be able to cite all kinds of articles supporting any notion that my daughter’s experience was widespread, but I do note this article pointing out that “Suicide rates for all ages dropped by 5.6% in 2020 compared to 2019. But this is not entirely unusual. Known as the ‘pulling together’ effect, suicide rates tend to dip during shared experiences of catastrophe.” And this report on a survey on the wellbeing of families states that although 31% of children reported that their emotional/mental health got worse during the pandemic, 16% report that it actually got better. Again, the pandemic still sucked, but 16% is a silver lining. (I say “sucked” instead of “sucks” … is it really the case we can now start speaking of the pandemic in the past tense?)

Online schooling, though it has been almost universally assailed as a big negative overall, also has its positive side. A Johns Hopkins University article from May of 2020 quotes Beth Marshall, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Adolescent Health and an assistant scientist at the Bloomberg School of Public Health:

The pandemic has given schools a push to move everything online. There will be an incredible utility for this even after the pandemic has ended. For instance, schools may now be able to tailor learning to specific kids by supplementing their classroom education with online material. It is often a struggle to meet the learning level of all students. With virtual content, students can access gifted and advanced learning opportunities that are otherwise unavailable…. The same is true for districts that are resource-poor and do not have enough textbooks for their students. Many of the texts that accompany curricula are now online. If we can continue to access these when we return and have a hybrid of online and in-person education, it might start to reduce some of the inequities we have in school systems.

Another thing my younger daughter mentioned as a positive is that with online schooling, she no longer had to get up as early and finally started getting all the sleep she needed. Her experience is corroborated by the same Johns Hopkins article. Tamar Mendelson, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Adolescent Health and Bloomberg Professor of American Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, states:

Adolescents’ sleep clocks are programmed to go to sleep later in the night and wake up later in the day than children’s sleep clocks are. Adolescents can follow these rhythms to a greater extent now that they are not forced to wake up early to get to school, as long as they're getting an adequate amount of sleep.

(The article does caution that lack of routine can throw off a sleep schedule and lead to reduced sleep overall.)

Silver linings for college kids?

I asked my older daughter, a college junior, if she saw any benefits from the pandemic. Right off the bat, she cited three opportunities it created for her. Since she’s pre-med, for years she’s been on the lookout for healthcare-related volunteering opportunities, and was stoked to get work at a vaccination clinic. She was then able to find a paid position working a COVID hotline for students and parents, which led to a volunteer position at a hospital emergency department. She was able to handle all three gigs only because online schooling provided so much flexibility: with all her lectures recorded, she no longer had to work in the volunteer stuff around any kind of class schedule. In fact, she can even work a ten-hour shift on a weekday, which would have been unheard of pre-pandemic.

This flexibility also made getting required classes much easier, because she could double-book classes (i.e., enroll in classes that theoretically met at the same time). She also corroborates Beth Marshall’s comments about online schooling supplementing the classroom education with additional material for advanced students.

Meanwhile, since my daughter stayed on campus during remote learning due to these jobs, she made all kinds of new friends from among the international students who couldn’t go home. Sure, she’d have made friends anyway, but this widened the demographic from what she’d had in high school.

In closing

Next time somebody goes on a little long griping about the pandemic, or asks you if you see any silver lining, you can just … wow, I was about to suggest you refer him or her to this post. But of course that’s absurd, this essay is 2500 words! You’re a pretty special person to make it to the end … don’t kid yourself that your hypothetical interlocutor has that kind of patience. Just send him or her to Marilyn vos Savant’s column. Sure, it’s woefully incomplete and misses the most important points, but it’s only 100 words and she’s really, really smart.

More reading on the pandemic

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