From the Beacon, February 2021

In spite of disruption and disorganization in the roll-out of vaccine delivery and execution across the nation, it is clear that we are past the pandemic midpoint. With strong collaboration, communication and ingenuity — just as with testing — our supply, demand and delivery systems will adjust, improve and reach appropriate capacity to ensure vaccinations and herd immunity by the end of this summer. You will be an essential part of this success.

Simply put, we are now closer to the end than we are to the beginning, although huge challenges are still ahead of us.

Let’s stop for a moment and absorb the good news part of this. We have passed the middle of this crisis. Due to the extraordinary efforts of government at all levels (especially local and state), America and the world can now imagine a time when we can control the novel coronavirus, instead of it controlling our lives and institutions.

Lots of people are already talking about a swift return to circa-2019 normality, or maybe a “new normal” that rhymes with 2019, by the fall. (New normal seems to differ from normal in that it would be a close cousin to 2019, only with heightened awareness of our vulnerability, and a few tweaks such as a short-term focus on masks and an unclear blend of in-person and virtual engagement).

Yet here is the singular question: do we want to return to the pre-COVID-19 normal? I believe the answer is no.

Here are a few ideas, and I’m sure you can add more:
We must retain our renewed reliance on science to guide policy. In the “beforetimes,” it was common to frame belief in science as a political issue. Fortunately, this has been rarer in Massachusetts. At a national level, however, we saw the former president and many governors denigrate medical and scientific realities. They belittled the COVID threat and described evidence-based pandemic responses as attacks on individual liberty. This led to unnecessary death and misery, and increased everyone’s vulnerability, due to the harsh reality that the virus does not care about red and blue, about state or local borders, or about the approval ratings of politicians. Going forward, we must de-politicize science and facts.

We must keep the movement for racial equity front and center. Explicit racism has been on the rise for many years, and the pace accelerated during the past five years. Emboldened by dog-whistle politics and reinforced by social media platforms, white supremacists have marched throughout America, from Charlottesville in 2017 to the storming of our nation’s capitol building in 2021. This in-plain-view racism has triggered a heightened awareness in Americans, leading to a renewed understanding of how deeply racism is embedded in policies and practices across society, from policing to public health, from our economy to education. The pandemic pulled back the veil on racially based health disparities, with Black, brown and BIPOC communities experiencing higher infection and death rates. Achieving racial equity will require massive change across all of our institutions, and the journey will require unyielding commitment and unprecedented leadership. The new normal after COVID must not allow a snap-back to what was an unacceptable status quo. Racial equity must remain on the center stage.

We must invest more in our public health infrastructure. Government focuses on the here and now. The immediate challenge. The task that must be done. Part of this has to do with the public’s willingness to pay. But mostly it has to do with the limits of the human brain. Addressing future threats is a basic human blind spot, because it is very hard for people to process time delays that artificially disconnect actions from results, and it is equally difficult for individuals to recognize how they contribute to world-scale events. For example, today it may be easier to see the connection between the industrial revolution and climate change, but at the turn of the 20th century that was beyond anyone’s vision. And at the personal level, people just can’t see how their home, job or consumer behavior could really lead to powerful superstorms and rising sea levels. As we move ahead, public leaders at every level must recognize that our local, state and federal public health systems need permanent renewal and investment. We were caught flat-footed and unprepared because of the limits of our brains. A virus in Wuhan is really a virus next door. Funding full-capacity public health systems every year is more affordable and effective (by an order of magnitude) than repeating this pandemic playbook every 20 years. Let’s learn and expand our abilities and capabilities.

We must close the digital divides faced by rural and low-income households. The pandemic pulled back the curtain on two massive digital divides in Massachusetts. Dozens of rural communities do not have access to broadband and the latest in digital technology. The struggle for connectivity has been extremely frustrating for these towns. They have been left behind by the telecom companies. These firms are profit-driven and have refused to build out their networks in low-density, high-cost regions. Federal regulators have failed to step in and force an end to this inequity, allowing fealty to the markets to prevail as policy. Communities have done their best to step up, and some state capital investment has been available, but not at the pace or scale needed to close the divide. The problem of rural broadband access is even worse in other parts of the country. The U.S. government must align regulatory and infrastructure investment policies to bring an end to this failure. In addition, the rapid switch to remote and hybrid K-12 learning in our schools showed just how difficult technology access is for economically disadvantaged households and individuals. Broadband subscriptions, wifi, routers and laptops are commonplace for middle- and upper-income families, but are beyond the reach of far too many. Access to technology is essential for engagement and success in our economy and our communities. Since wealth is distributed disproportionately, these vital digital divide investments must come from our national and state governments, and must be top priorities in a post-COVID world.

We must rethink how we set priorities. We are early in the vaccine delivery stage, and there are understandable concerns and criticisms of how the roll-out has taken place. From the beginning, the federal government abdicated responsibility for coordinating a national game plan and provided no visibility on the volume or dependability of vaccine supplies to the states. This undermined state-level planning and made local decision-making in advance virtually impossible. However, despite some rhetoric to the contrary, the priority-setting that Massachusetts and most states have put in place is transparent and solid. Priority has gone to those most exposed and integral to fighting the pandemic (health care workers, first responders and other front-line personnel), then to those most vulnerable to serious illness and death (the elderly, those with underlying health conditions), then to those who are essential workers (school, grocery, public works and other employees), then to the general public. Special attention is being given to ensure delivery to those disproportionately vulnerable to or impacted by the virus. Incarcerated individuals, due to their exposure risk, were given priority over the general public. While that may have generated some resentment, it was the right thing to do. Because this is a life-and-death battle, a more political approach to vaccine access would have been abhorrent. Going forward, wouldn’t it be refreshing for our systems to use a stronger equity lens on policy decisions instead of defaulting to the what’s-least-politically-disruptive/most-politically-accomodative approach that seems to have become the national norm since the 1980s?

As we look to our post-pandemic future, we long for the day when we can close the gaps between us, a time when we can renew and reconnect and satiate our desire for personal, family and social connection. When we can hug our extended family, have dinner with our friends, travel to unexplored places. We all ache for that state of normalcy.

At the same time, we can embrace a future that has us learning from this experience. Imagine a new normal where science guides us, racial equity calls us, public health is treasured, digital divides are erased, and priorities are weighted toward those among us who are most vulnerable and exposed to risk. That’s a new normal that will strengthen our communities and propel us forward, not back.

Go back to normal? No thank you.

Move ahead to a new normal? Yes please!

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO