8 Lessons We Can Learn From the COVID-19 Pandemic


Rear view of a family standing on a hill in autumn day, symbolizing hope for the end of the COVID-19 pandemic

Note: Information in this article was accurate at the time of original publication. Because information about COVID-19 changes rapidly, we encourage you to visit the websites of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and your state and local government for the latest information.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed life as we know it—and it may have changed us individually as well, from our morning routines to our life goals and priorities. Many say the world has changed forever. But this coming year, if the vaccines drive down infections and variants are kept at bay, life could return to some form of normal. At that point, what will we glean from the past year? Are there silver linings or lessons learned?

“Humanity's memory is short, and what is not ever-present fades quickly,” says Manisha Juthani, MD , a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist. The bubonic plague, for example, ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages—resurfacing again and again—but once it was under control, people started to forget about it, she says. “So, I would say one major lesson from a public health or infectious disease perspective is that it’s important to remember and recognize our history. This is a period we must remember.”

We asked our Yale Medicine experts to weigh in on what they think are lessons worth remembering, including those that might help us survive a future virus or nurture a resilience that could help with life in general.

Lesson 1: Masks are useful tools

What happened: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relaxed its masking guidance for those who have been fully vaccinated. But when the pandemic began, it necessitated a global effort to ensure that everyone practiced behaviors to keep themselves healthy and safe—and keep others healthy as well. This included the widespread wearing of masks indoors and outside.

What we’ve learned: Not everyone practiced preventive measures such as mask wearing, maintaining a 6-foot distance, and washing hands frequently. But, Dr. Juthani says, “I do think many people have learned a whole lot about respiratory pathogens and viruses, and how they spread from one person to another, and that sort of old-school common sense—you know, if you don’t feel well—whether it’s COVID-19 or not—you don’t go to the party. You stay home.”

Masks are a case in point. They are a key COVID-19 prevention strategy because they provide a barrier that can keep respiratory droplets from spreading. Mask-wearing became more common across East Asia after the 2003 SARS outbreak in that part of the world. “There are many East Asian cultures where the practice is still that if you have a cold or a runny nose, you put on a mask,” Dr. Juthani says.

She hopes attitudes in the U.S. will shift in that direction after COVID-19. “I have heard from a number of people who are amazed that we've had no flu this year—and they know masks are one of the reasons,” she says. “They’ve told me, ‘When the winter comes around, if I'm going out to the grocery store, I may just put on a mask.’”

Lesson 2: Telehealth might become the new normal

What happened: Doctors and patients who have used telehealth (technology that allows them to conduct medical care remotely), found it can work well for certain appointments, ranging from cardiology check-ups to therapy for a mental health condition. Many patients who needed a medical test have also discovered it may be possible to substitute a home version.

What we’ve learned: While there are still problems for which you need to see a doctor in person, the pandemic introduced a new urgency to what had been a gradual switchover to platforms like Zoom for remote patient visits. 

More doctors also encouraged patients to track their blood pressure at home , and to use at-home equipment for such purposes as diagnosing sleep apnea and even testing for colon cancer . Doctors also can fine-tune cochlear implants remotely .

“It happened very quickly,” says Sharon Stoll, DO, a neurologist. One group that has benefitted is patients who live far away, sometimes in other parts of the country—or even the world, she says. “I always like to see my patients at least twice a year. Now, we can see each other in person once a year, and if issues come up, we can schedule a telehealth visit in-between,” Dr. Stoll says. “This way I may hear about an issue before it becomes a problem, because my patients have easier access to me, and I have easier access to them.”

Meanwhile, insurers are becoming more likely to cover telehealth, Dr. Stoll adds. “That is a silver lining that will hopefully continue.”

Lesson 3: Vaccines are powerful tools

What happened: Given the recent positive results from vaccine trials, once again vaccines are proving to be powerful for preventing disease.

What we’ve learned: Vaccines really are worth getting, says Dr. Stoll, who had COVID-19 and experienced lingering symptoms, including chronic headaches . “I have lots of conversations—and sometimes arguments—with people about vaccines,” she says. Some don’t like the idea of side effects. “I had vaccine side effects and I’ve had COVID-19 side effects, and I say nothing compares to the actual illness. Unfortunately, I speak from experience.”

Dr. Juthani hopes the COVID-19 vaccine spotlight will motivate people to keep up with all of their vaccines, including childhood and adult vaccines for such diseases as measles , chicken pox, shingles , and other viruses. She says people have told her they got the flu vaccine this year after skipping it in previous years. (The CDC has reported distributing an exceptionally high number of doses this past season.)  

But, she cautions that a vaccine is not a magic bullet—and points out that scientists can’t always produce one that works. “As advanced as science is, there have been multiple failed efforts to develop a vaccine against the HIV virus,” she says. “This time, we were lucky that we were able build on the strengths that we've learned from many other vaccine development strategies to develop multiple vaccines for COVID-19 .” 

Lesson 4: Everyone is not treated equally, especially in a pandemic

What happened: COVID-19 magnified disparities that have long been an issue for a variety of people.

What we’ve learned: Racial and ethnic minority groups especially have had disproportionately higher rates of hospitalization for COVID-19 than non-Hispanic white people in every age group, and many other groups faced higher levels of risk or stress. These groups ranged from working mothers who also have primary responsibility for children, to people who have essential jobs, to those who live in rural areas where there is less access to health care.

“One thing that has been recognized is that when people were told to work from home, you needed to have a job that you could do in your house on a computer,” says Dr. Juthani. “Many people who were well off were able do that, but they still needed to have food, which requires grocery store workers and truck drivers. Nursing home residents still needed certified nursing assistants coming to work every day to care for them and to bathe them.”  

As far as racial inequities, Dr. Juthani cites President Biden’s appointment of Yale Medicine’s Marcella Nunez-Smith, MD, MHS , as inaugural chair of a federal COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. “Hopefully the new focus is a first step,” Dr. Juthani says.

Lesson 5: We need to take mental health seriously

What happened: There was a rise in reported mental health problems that have been described as “a second pandemic,” highlighting mental health as an issue that needs to be addressed.

What we’ve learned: Arman Fesharaki-Zadeh, MD, PhD , a behavioral neurologist and neuropsychiatrist, believes the number of mental health disorders that were on the rise before the pandemic is surging as people grapple with such matters as juggling work and childcare, job loss, isolation, and losing a loved one to COVID-19.

The CDC reports that the percentage of adults who reported symptoms of anxiety of depression in the past 7 days increased from 36.4 to 41.5 % from August 2020 to February 2021. Other reports show that having COVID-19 may contribute, too, with its lingering or long COVID symptoms, which can include “foggy mind,” anxiety , depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder .

 “We’re seeing these problems in our clinical setting very, very often,” Dr. Fesharaki-Zadeh says. “By virtue of necessity, we can no longer ignore this. We're seeing these folks, and we have to take them seriously.”

Lesson 6: We have the capacity for resilience

What happened: While everyone’s situation is different­­ (and some people have experienced tremendous difficulties), many have seen that it’s possible to be resilient in a crisis.

What we’ve learned: People have practiced self-care in a multitude of ways during the pandemic as they were forced to adjust to new work schedules, change their gym routines, and cut back on socializing. Many started seeking out new strategies to counter the stress.

“I absolutely believe in the concept of resilience, because we have this effective reservoir inherent in all of us—be it the product of evolution, or our ancestors going through catastrophes, including wars, famines, and plagues,” Dr. Fesharaki-Zadeh says. “I think inherently, we have the means to deal with crisis. The fact that you and I are speaking right now is the result of our ancestors surviving hardship. I think resilience is part of our psyche. It's part of our DNA, essentially.”

Dr. Fesharaki-Zadeh believes that even small changes are highly effective tools for creating resilience. The changes he suggests may sound like the same old advice: exercise more, eat healthy food, cut back on alcohol, start a meditation practice, keep up with friends and family. “But this is evidence-based advice—there has been research behind every one of these measures,” he says.

But we have to also be practical, he notes. “If you feel overwhelmed by doing too many things, you can set a modest goal with one new habit—it could be getting organized around your sleep. Once you’ve succeeded, move on to another one. Then you’re building momentum.”

Lesson 7: Community is essential—and technology is too

What happened: People who were part of a community during the pandemic realized the importance of human connection, and those who didn’t have that kind of support realized they need it.

What we’ve learned: Many of us have become aware of how much we need other people—many have managed to maintain their social connections, even if they had to use technology to keep in touch, Dr. Juthani says. “There's no doubt that it's not enough, but even that type of community has helped people.”

Even people who aren’t necessarily friends or family are important. Dr. Juthani recalled how she encouraged her mail carrier to sign up for the vaccine, soon learning that the woman’s mother and husband hadn’t gotten it either. “They are all vaccinated now,” Dr. Juthani says. “So, even by word of mouth, community is a way to make things happen.”

It’s important to note that some people are naturally introverted and may have enjoyed having more solitude when they were forced to stay at home—and they should feel comfortable with that, Dr. Fesharaki-Zadeh says. “I think one has to keep temperamental tendencies like this in mind.”

But loneliness has been found to suppress the immune system and be a precursor to some diseases, he adds. “Even for introverted folks, the smallest circle is preferable to no circle at all,” he says.

Lesson 8: Sometimes you need a dose of humility

What happened: Scientists and nonscientists alike learned that a virus can be more powerful than they are. This was evident in the way knowledge about the virus changed over time in the past year as scientific investigation of it evolved.

What we’ve learned: “As infectious disease doctors, we were resident experts at the beginning of the pandemic because we understand pathogens in general, and based on what we’ve seen in the past, we might say there are certain things that are likely to be true,” Dr. Juthani says. “But we’ve seen that we have to take these pathogens seriously. We know that COVID-19 is not the flu. All these strokes and clots, and the loss of smell and taste that have gone on for months are things that we could have never known or predicted. So, you have to have respect for the unknown and respect science, but also try to give scientists the benefit of the doubt,” she says.

“We have been doing the best we can with the knowledge we have, in the time that we have it,” Dr. Juthani says. “I think most of us have had to have the humility to sometimes say, ‘I don't know. We're learning as we go.’"

Information provided in Yale Medicine articles is for general informational purposes only. No content in the articles should ever be used as a substitute for medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician. Always seek the individual advice of your health care provider with any questions you have regarding a medical condition.

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Six Lessons We’ve Learned From Covid That Will Help Us Fight the Next Pandemic

Public health experts weigh in on the steps America needs to take to stem a future outbreak

Simar Bajaj

Line for Covid Tests

It has been three years since the first reported Covid-19 case in Wuhan, China, and more than 6.6 million people have died from this disease since. The United States has the highest number of Covid-19 deaths worldwide, with a sixth of the global toll. But despite this devastation, the U.S. may not be ready for the next pandemic: Experts say they can easily imagine a virus that is as infectious (if not more infectious) than the coronavirus but far more deadly. “If this was our test run, I think we mostly failed,” says Bob Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

So, what went wrong? No one answer can explain everything, and Amy Acton, former director of the Ohio Department of Health, thinks the U.S. needs to establish a 9/11-style commission to study the pandemic response and improve preparedness going forward. With the country seemingly ready to move on, though, nobody can say when this commission will happen , if ever.

In this absence, we reached out to public health experts to distill six lessons we’ve learned from Covid-19 that could help us fight the next pandemic.

We need to rapidly scale up testing

According to Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, the first failure of the pandemic was “not to have a test for almost two months.” As Covid-19 spread across the country between late January and early March 2020 , the U.S. was driving blind, unable to track transmission and get ahead of the disease. “That set us down a dark hole that never has been truly dug out,” Topol says.

On January 11, 2020, Chinese scientists uploaded the coronavirus’ genome online , and a week later, German scientists made the first diagnostic test. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was developing its own test, but the first batch created was defective—and it took weeks to fix the issue. Meanwhile, the U.S. refused to use the World Health Organization (WHO) test, even as almost 60 other countries did, and federal regulations obstructed state, academic and commercial labs from developing their own versions. These regulations were lifted only at the end of February . “One of the biggest missteps we had was lost time,” says Monica Bharel, former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Looking around the world, many countries empowered commercial labs to produce Covid-19 tests so that early in the pandemic, they were able to test tens of thousands of people per day, even as the U.S. could test fewer than 100 . “One of the real lessons is that the CDC cannot, or—at least based on the way they were two years ago— should not have been trusted to be the only developer for testing,” says Wachter.

In the future, waiving some of the regulatory hurdles and using WHO tests as a temporary measure could help the U.S. rapidly scale up testing while still ensuring quality control and efficacy.

We need to leverage data more effectively

During the pandemic, “follow the science” was a common refrain, but the paucity of quality data made it almost impossible to adhere to this commitment. The initial delay in testing was part of the issue because it left public health officials with inadequate information to guide their state’s response. “If you don’t test, you don’t know what’s there,” Acton says.

That’s true from an equity lens as well. In late March, Bharel saw that Massachusetts wasn’t getting enough reporting of cases, hospitalizations and deaths by race and ethnicity, so she put out a public health executive order requiring this breakdown. And, in short course, race and ethnicity reporting shot up from 28 percent to 98 percent for Covid-19 deaths, Bharel says. That granularity in data allowed Massachusetts to identify health disparities early and proactively work to close them, even as many other states were working in the dark.

Beyond testing and data collection, one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic was that public health departments’ data systems were severely outdated. In Ohio, that meant that the department had to look elsewhere for its data analytics. “We don’t even have the money to afford that,” says Acton, “but we were able to go to Cleveland Clinic and scientists from amazing universities who could run the numbers for us.”

These collaborations were critically important but decentralized, so every state was reporting Covid-19 data in ways that weren’t always compatible nationally. “It was very difficult for me in Massachusetts to say, what can I learn from Illinois or Rhode Island or New York—and compare and contrast,” Bharel says. “There has to be a way for the CDC to obtain information from all states and territories in a standardized way.”

In future pandemics, the CDC should mandate that states collect granular, high-quality data and help build the digital infrastructure to standardize reporting across the U.S. Public health agencies could then share this data with Americans in daily briefings and weekly reports, as opposed to data snapshots that usually come too little, too late, Topol says.

We need to seek out a diversity of voices

Acton says, “when you’re a leader, truth doesn’t always get up to you.” That’s partially by design, because gatekeepers help prevent information overload. But it’s also partially politics: “Bureaucratic systems incentivize, at certain levels, not speaking up,” she adds.

That’s why Acton admires Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who used to say that “the only decisions he regrets are when he didn’t work hard enough to get all the information he needed.” This relentless information-seeking helped Ohio build a kitchen cabinet of advisers from day one. “Ohio got ahead because we were able to get the information we needed,” Acton says.

The lesson for future pandemics is to seek out expertise from across the government and country, from theologians to communications experts to medical anthropologists and more. Acton points to Angela Merkel of Germany as a leader who “intentionally surrounded herself with a diversity of minds and thoughts” to make the most informed decisions she could. In a pandemic that cuts across all facets of society, leaders need to deliberately weigh all sides of the situation to make the most effective decisions, she says.

Deliberately seeking out this diversity of voices is also critical for fighting health disparities, Bharel emphasizes. Massachusetts, for instance, formed a health equity advisory group, so community members, health care workers and other experts could counsel the department on where and how to deploy limited resources. The state’s vaccination strategy, widely touted for its high uptake and reach , was probably the most notable example of this advisory group’s success.

Massachusetts started with mass vaccination sites, like most states, but quickly observed that these sites weren’t reaching all residents equally. So, in the state’s most vulnerable regions, the department pursued a hyperlocal strategy, hiring community members to serve as vaccine ambassadors. They would go door to door, answer people’s concerns and walk them over to get vaccinated—familiar faces engaging their communities. “In the United States, if you start to feel unwell, it is your responsibility to physically go to the health care facility,” Bharel says. “What if we flipped that and said we want to come to you in the community, and we want to help you be well?”

Of course, this engagement shouldn’t be transactional—getting shots in arms and then leaving. Public health departments should form interdisciplinary advisory committees that represent their community’s diversity and can help guide their work, whether the threat is lung cancer or the next pandemic. Prioritizing the community’s lived experiences and continuously investing in their success builds trust and equity.

We need to continue making big bets on vaccines

Patient Gets a Covid Vaccine

The Covid-19 vaccine was undoubtedly the big success story of the pandemic. “It proved that a concerted public-private partnership is capable of producing at scale a highly effective vaccine in eight to ten months,” Wachter says. This victory was a testament to the unprecedented commitment of federal resources, an expedited Food and Drug Administration approval process, previous research into mRNA vaccines and good fortune that the spike protein was an easy target.

But this success also offers an important lesson. “If you make a big bet, and you’re successful with a program, you should keep making big bets,” Topol says. By removing the risk for pharmaceutical companies, Operation Warp Speed got the U.S. first-generation vaccines, but the government didn’t kick-start a second or third operation to make nasal vaccines or pan-coronavirus vaccines, which could have protected against new variants. This was reportedly because of a lack of political interest and funding . “It’s stupid,” Topol adds. “If this is the best we can do, it’s not good enough.”

Indeed, a big part of the promise of mRNA vaccines is that they can be endlessly tweaked, providing a foundation to tackle all sorts of infectious, autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases. For future pandemics, the U.S. should take advantage of this iterative nature to develop a series of new vaccines and not put all its eggs in one basket with first-generation vaccines, Topol emphasizes. Furthermore, Congress should be thinking of vaccine development as an instrument of national security , opening up its enormous defense budget to pandemic preparedness. After all, big public-private partnerships will always be needed to continue pushing technological boundaries and protecting American’s health.

We need to actively crowd out bad information

In 1984, HIV was discovered as the cause of AIDS, but almost 40 years later, scientists still haven’t been able to develop an effective vaccine for the virus. For Covid-19, however, “we learned that the biggest problem with vaccines is that people don’t take them,” Wachter says. Despite high-quality scientific evidence that they are essentially riskless, “the misinformation machine is able to elevate any tiny risk, either perceived or real, to feel almost equivalent to the benefit,” he adds.

Part of the challenge is that public health officials are not doing enough to compete for people’s attention. “The network that makes a conspiracy theory go viral is very well worked out and very strategic and intentional,” Wachter says, “whereas [public health] information networks tend to be like, ‘Well, we’re just putting out information. Why do we have to even think about spread?’”

For future pandemics, public health officials need to extensively engage their communities to drown out misinformation. “In Massachusetts, in the first 120 days of the pandemic, our governor had over 100 press events,” Bharel says. “What we really wanted to do was make our information the trusted source of information, because we knew there was a lot else out there.” Consequently, the department worked hard to put out information in different languages, create PSAs with physicians from local communities and creatively engage the public otherwise. In the Commonwealth Fund’s Scorecard , Massachusetts came eighth in the U.S. in its response and management of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But Topol thinks holding press conferences and engaging the public isn’t enough. “You have to take on the anti-science community, aggressively,” he says, “because if you don’t neutralize it, it just grows and gets more organized and sponsored and funded.” But what would this takedown actually look like? Topol envisions a fact-checking team at the White House or U.S. Department Health and Human Services (HHS) that would be responsible for publicly calling out public health lies spread on major media networks. “These bad actors, whoever they are, need to be identified so that the public knows that these people are making stuff up or lying—and they’re twisting and distorting things,” Topol says.

Whether or not this fact-checking crew could actually work is an open question, but Topol is emphatic that public health cannot take a hands-off approach to misinformation going forward. “It’s harmed millions of people, maybe cost hundreds of thousands of lives in this country already,” he says. “And we just let it happen.”

We need to infuse public health communication with vulnerability

Although misinformation was certainly deadly, the problems with pandemic communication were so much broader. With shifting guidance on issues such as isolation length and booster eligibility , public health agencies lost the American people’s credibility. “When the vaccines first came out and they began saying breakthrough infections are rare, everyone looked around and said, ‘No, they’re not. Half of my family has one,’” Wachter says. According to a poll published in May 2021 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, only half of the public reported a great deal of trust in the CDC, and only a third in HHS.

Some of these failures in communication were to be expected because, as Bharel put it, “we were flying the plane at the same time as were building it.” In the context of a novel virus, of course scientific understandings evolve, but communicating this shift to the public proved to be more difficult, with the federal government faltering again and again. For instance, the CDC’s masking recommendation in April 2020 was seen as arbitrary and capricious rather than reflecting greater evidence for airborne transmission and asymptomatic spread .

For future pandemics, the U.S. should consider taking a page out of Ohio’s playbook. In 2020, New York Times producers watched seven weeks of Acton’s press briefings and released an opinion documentary titled “The Leader We Wish We All Had,” focusing on her vulnerability, brutal honesty and empowerment. She acknowledged Ohioans’ pain and made them feel less alone. She openly projected her own uncertainty instead of providing static, irrevocable answers. When testing was in short supply in April 2020, she confessed that the Department of Health didn’t know how much Covid-19 had spread. “I have to be very clear and transparent with you. All of these numbers are a gross underestimation,” Acton said at the time, “and we have no real idea of the prevalence of this infection yet.”

Acton reflects back and says, “We would directly lay truth on the table, and once you do, more truth will spread.”

Bharel echoes similar points about transparency and flexible messaging. “This is what we know now. This is what we don’t know. And this is how we’re trying to find out more information,” she parcels out. Public health experts say that the public can handle—and in fact appreciates—difficult truths, as well as learning what specific work is being done to provide more clarity.

But perhaps one of the most important lessons for public health messaging is unity. During her wildly popular press briefings , Acton would share everything from Michael Stipe’s song “No Time for Love Like Now,” to the story of Bonnie Bowen, a 93-year-old Ohioan who’s made watercolor paintings every day since March 2020. When Bowen got Covid-19, she received 250,000 prayer messages—and ended up surviving. “We had to build a life raft where people were pulling one another up, and in Ohio, we ended up creating this movement of people helping people,” Acton says. “Kindness is an age-old, enduring principle. It’s about having the hard conversations but holding space and seeing the humanity in one another.”

Before the next pandemic, Wachter says “there should be a postmortem of the communication effort by the federal government about what the lessons learned were.” After cleaning house accordingly, HHS should establish an integrated system for public health communication, like the U.S. has for extreme weather and homeland security threats , and promulgate best practices for science communication to state and local leaders.

We need to question whether we’ve learned our lessons

We discussed the six biggest takeaways from Covid that will help us fight the next pandemic, but we could have mentioned so many other lessons, from improving ventilation to reforming contact tracing to depoliticizing public health. And that’s why Acton, Bharel, Topol and Wachter all emphasized the need to fully reckon with the failures of the Covid-19 pandemic and ensure that we are actually learning from our mistakes.

But Topol says there’s no guarantee that we will. And Wachter paints a similarly bleak picture about the future of public health: “We will underinvest in it because that’s what everybody always does when the acute threat passes. There’s always some other threat to take its place in the public attention and priorities.”

But experts stress that we can’t let this moment go by, especially after the past three years have brought unimaginable suffering, fear and loss to every pocket of the U.S. “We need to mourn, memorialize and then move forward,” Acton says. “We have to make meaning out of things we've endured.”

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Simar Bajaj | | READ MORE

Simar Bajaj is a student at Harvard University studying the history of science and a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Stanford University School of Medicine. He has previously written for the Washington Post , Guardian , TIME Magazine , and New England Journal of Medicine .

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9 Valuable Lessons We’ve Learned During The Pandemic

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

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We’re not going to lie: It’s been a little hard to find the silver lining at times this past year.

With so much stress, loss, and pain at the forefront of our minds, it sometimes feels like we’re in a constant waiting game, counting down the minutes until our “normal” lives are back. But after a year like this, there’s no going back to normal because we’ve all been changed forever in one way or another. We’ve lived 12 years in the past 12 months, and we’ve grown in the process – and that is a silver lining to be proud of!

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

So we decided the best way to acknowledge and appreciate the growth we’ve experienced is by taking a second to reflect on this past year and find the positives that were woven through each day.

To see the good that has come from these hard times, we adopted a lens of learning and growing, and it empowered us to do just that! Here are nine important lessons we’ve learned in the midst of COVID-19.

1. Family is nonnegotiable.

For many of us, this year brought with it quality family time that we never expected and, honestly, might never have had otherwise. It’s reminded us just how much family matters. And I don’t just mean blood relatives, I mean chosen family, too. 

We were encouraged to take a step out of the craziness of our former lives and deeply invest in those relationships again, whether it was face-to-face or not.

We’ve had the opportunity to not just catch up on life, but to also spend priceless time with our loved ones, asking personal questions, being there for the important moments, leaning on each other for support, and growing together. As a result, we remembered just how much we need each other! 

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

2. Prioritize health and wellness .

When the pandemic first began, the world started paying attention to health, wellness, and hygiene like never before. We realized just how effective our handwashing wasn’t , how much we shouldn’t be touching our faces, and the beauty of both modern and natural medicine. These are all crucial practices and levels of care that will hopefully stick with us in the future.

Not only that, but without the usual benefits of daily activity, in-person workouts, and restaurant dining, a microscope was placed on just how willing we were to maintain our wellness all on our own.

With the pandemic came a myriad of free cooking and workout classes on social media and a realization that, particularly when we’re stuck inside, our bodies really do need nutrients and activity to survive. 

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

3. We can get by on less. Much less.

The road to discovering how little we need was paved with uncertainty. With the overwhelming job loss that came with the pandemic, people had to learn how to pinch pennies, clip coupons, and trim excess like never before. 

Even for those who kept their jobs, without indoor dining, salons, gyms, and a wealth of other standard social activities, saving money actually became easier to do. Even though we’ll all be lining the doors when things are back to normal, we realized in the process that we actually can live on a lot less and still be content.

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

4. Build that nest egg.

In addition to pinching those pennies, we learned the endless value of having a rainy day fund – or more appropriately, an emergency fund. An emergency fund is one that is set aside for the most essential of needs, including rent, medical expenses, childcare, and food. 

As we’ve all heard over and over again, these are unprecedented times. The nature of unprecedented times is that we don’t see them coming, so we don’t plan for them.

If this year has taught us anything, it’s the importance of setting aside a little extra money and leaving it there until the day comes when we might need it. 

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

5. Slow down.

We’ve realized that not only is it OK to slow down, but it’s actually essential. 

When the pandemic hit, it was as if the whole world was running on overdrive and then, all at once, it crashed. We allowed it to get this way because we have a tendency to align our worth with our busyness. But luckily, this past year has shown us just how unbalanced that meter is. 

There are a few key points to remember moving forward. First of all, self-care is not self-indulgent; it’s one way that we keep ourselves healthy, both physically and mentally. Second, slowing down is what helps us truly live in the present and find contentment in our circumstances. 

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

6. We should be talking about mental health.

One of the best silver linings of this year is that we learned just how valuable mental health is. Studies show that ever since the pandemic hit, close to 40 percent of Americans now suffer from anxiety and depression. The causes are endless: financial stress, difficult home lives, boredom, loss, fear, and, perhaps the heaviest of all, loneliness. 

These universal mental health issues truly are a “second wave” of this global crisis, and the greatest benefit has been the light shed on their gravity.

People are being more vocal than ever about the importance of honesty and vulnerability when it comes to our mental health, just like we would a physical ailment. By doing so, we can get the love and support we need. 

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

7. Our thoughts on people have changed.

The more closed off we’ve had to become socially and the more we’ve noticed the deep need around us, the more we’ve realized whom we consider to be truly essential.

In our own lives, we’ve learned which friends we want close to us in times of trouble – and maybe even some relationships we’ve been needing freedom from. 

In our communities, we’ve finally realized the overwhelming value of our essential workers: in health care, education, food service, and the most underappreciated segments of our workforce. May we never forget how brave and resilient they have been for all of us these past 12 months. 

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

8. Becoming comfortable with uncertainty.

“The one thing that’s certain about this current crisis is the massive amount of uncertainty,” Paul Knopp, U.S. Chair and CEO of KPMG LLP, told Accounting Today . “In order to succeed, you must execute on the activities and behaviors that are within your control.”

We have definitely learned flexibility this year. From working and schooling from home, to rerouting our careers, to finding new ways to stay connected, to moving back in with our parents, our flexibility has been award-winning and record-breaking. 

A benefit of this growing pain is that it’s made us more comfortable with uncertainty. There’s so much about the future that we can’t possibly know or predict right now, so ultimately all we can do is be OK with it – and choose to find the wonder and joy in our present circumstances. 

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

9. We are deeply resilient.

We are capable of so much more than we ever knew. This year has been rife with chaos, unrest, injustice, loss, and pain – but we’ve survived. We’re still standing. Even in the darkest time, we’ve been able to look outside ourselves and pull through for those in need in remarkable ways. It’s helped us realize the stuff we’re made of . 

More than that, we’ve done it together. We’ve all been in isolation together, and we’ve survived together. It’s reminded us that at the end of the day, we are all just human beings, and we need each other.

And now we know with certainty that we can handle anything!

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

After the levels of stress we’ve lived through this past year, the best we can do is make sure it wasn’t for nothing. We can search for the good, continue to grow, and allow our circumstances to change us for the better. Only then will we continue to come out on the other side stronger, more resilient, more compassionate, and more hopeful than ever!

Share this story to remind others how much they’ve grown this year.

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

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I Thought We’d Learned Nothing From the Pandemic. I Wasn’t Seeing the Full Picture

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

M y first home had a back door that opened to a concrete patio with a giant crack down the middle. When my sister and I played, I made sure to stay on the same side of the divide as her, just in case. The 1988 film The Land Before Time was one of the first movies I ever saw, and the image of the earth splintering into pieces planted its roots in my brain. I believed that, even in my own backyard, I could easily become the tiny Triceratops separated from her family, on the other side of the chasm, as everything crumbled into chaos.

Some 30 years later, I marvel at the eerie, unexpected ways that cartoonish nightmare came to life – not just for me and my family, but for all of us. The landscape was already covered in fissures well before COVID-19 made its way across the planet, but the pandemic applied pressure, and the cracks broke wide open, separating us from each other physically and ideologically. Under the weight of the crisis, we scattered and landed on such different patches of earth we could barely see each other’s faces, even when we squinted. We disagreed viciously with each other, about how to respond, but also about what was true.

Recently, someone asked me if we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, and my first thought was a flat no. Nothing. There was a time when I thought it would be the very thing to draw us together and catapult us – as a capital “S” Society – into a kinder future. It’s surreal to remember those early days when people rallied together, sewing masks for health care workers during critical shortages and gathering on balconies in cities from Dallas to New York City to clap and sing songs like “Yellow Submarine.” It felt like a giant lightning bolt shot across the sky, and for one breath, we all saw something that had been hidden in the dark – the inherent vulnerability in being human or maybe our inescapable connectedness .

More from TIME

Read More: The Family Time the Pandemic Stole

But it turns out, it was just a flash. The goodwill vanished as quickly as it appeared. A couple of years later, people feel lied to, abandoned, and all on their own. I’ve felt my own curiosity shrinking, my willingness to reach out waning , my ability to keep my hands open dwindling. I look out across the landscape and see selfishness and rage, burnt earth and so many dead bodies. Game over. We lost. And if we’ve already lost, why try?

Still, the question kept nagging me. I wondered, am I seeing the full picture? What happens when we focus not on the collective society but at one face, one story at a time? I’m not asking for a bow to minimize the suffering – a pretty flourish to put on top and make the whole thing “worth it.” Yuck. That’s not what we need. But I wondered about deep, quiet growth. The kind we feel in our bodies, relationships, homes, places of work, neighborhoods.

Like a walkie-talkie message sent to my allies on the ground, I posted a call on my Instagram. What do you see? What do you hear? What feels possible? Is there life out here? Sprouting up among the rubble? I heard human voices calling back – reports of life, personal and specific. I heard one story at a time – stories of grief and distrust, fury and disappointment. Also gratitude. Discovery. Determination.

Among the most prevalent were the stories of self-revelation. Almost as if machines were given the chance to live as humans, people described blossoming into fuller selves. They listened to their bodies’ cues, recognized their desires and comforts, tuned into their gut instincts, and honored the intuition they hadn’t realized belonged to them. Alex, a writer and fellow disabled parent, found the freedom to explore a fuller version of herself in the privacy the pandemic provided. “The way I dress, the way I love, and the way I carry myself have both shrunk and expanded,” she shared. “I don’t love myself very well with an audience.” Without the daily ritual of trying to pass as “normal” in public, Tamar, a queer mom in the Netherlands, realized she’s autistic. “I think the pandemic helped me to recognize the mask,” she wrote. “Not that unmasking is easy now. But at least I know it’s there.” In a time of widespread suffering that none of us could solve on our own, many tended to our internal wounds and misalignments, large and small, and found clarity.

Read More: A Tool for Staying Grounded in This Era of Constant Uncertainty

I wonder if this flourishing of self-awareness is at least partially responsible for the life alterations people pursued. The pandemic broke open our personal notions of work and pushed us to reevaluate things like time and money. Lucy, a disabled writer in the U.K., made the hard decision to leave her job as a journalist covering Westminster to write freelance about her beloved disability community. “This work feels important in a way nothing else has ever felt,” she wrote. “I don’t think I’d have realized this was what I should be doing without the pandemic.” And she wasn’t alone – many people changed jobs , moved, learned new skills and hobbies, became politically engaged.

Perhaps more than any other shifts, people described a significant reassessment of their relationships. They set boundaries, said no, had challenging conversations. They also reconnected, fell in love, and learned to trust. Jeanne, a quilter in Indiana, got to know relatives she wouldn’t have connected with if lockdowns hadn’t prompted weekly family Zooms. “We are all over the map as regards to our belief systems,” she emphasized, “but it is possible to love people you don’t see eye to eye with on every issue.” Anna, an anti-violence advocate in Maine, learned she could trust her new marriage: “Life was not a honeymoon. But we still chose to turn to each other with kindness and curiosity.” So many bonds forged and broken, strengthened and strained.

Instead of relying on default relationships or institutional structures, widespread recalibrations allowed for going off script and fortifying smaller communities. Mara from Idyllwild, Calif., described the tangible plan for care enacted in her town. “We started a mutual-aid group at the beginning of the pandemic,” she wrote, “and it grew so quickly before we knew it we were feeding 400 of the 4000 residents.” She didn’t pretend the conditions were ideal. In fact, she expressed immense frustration with our collective response to the pandemic. Even so, the local group rallied and continues to offer assistance to their community with help from donations and volunteers (many of whom were originally on the receiving end of support). “I’ve learned that people thrive when they feel their connection to others,” she wrote. Clare, a teacher from the U.K., voiced similar conviction as she described a giant scarf she’s woven out of ribbons, each representing a single person. The scarf is “a collection of stories, moments and wisdom we are sharing with each other,” she wrote. It now stretches well over 1,000 feet.

A few hours into reading the comments, I lay back on my bed, phone held against my chest. The room was quiet, but my internal world was lighting up with firefly flickers. What felt different? Surely part of it was receiving personal accounts of deep-rooted growth. And also, there was something to the mere act of asking and listening. Maybe it connected me to humans before battle cries. Maybe it was the chance to be in conversation with others who were also trying to understand – what is happening to us? Underneath it all, an undeniable thread remained; I saw people peering into the mess and narrating their findings onto the shared frequency. Every comment was like a flare into the sky. I’m here! And if the sky is full of flares, we aren’t alone.

I recognized my own pandemic discoveries – some minor, others massive. Like washing off thick eyeliner and mascara every night is more effort than it’s worth; I can transform the mundane into the magical with a bedsheet, a movie projector, and twinkle lights; my paralyzed body can mother an infant in ways I’d never seen modeled for me. I remembered disappointing, bewildering conversations within my own family of origin and our imperfect attempts to remain close while also seeing things so differently. I realized that every time I get the weekly invite to my virtual “Find the Mumsies” call, with a tiny group of moms living hundreds of miles apart, I’m being welcomed into a pocket of unexpected community. Even though we’ve never been in one room all together, I’ve felt an uncommon kind of solace in their now-familiar faces.

Hope is a slippery thing. I desperately want to hold onto it, but everywhere I look there are real, weighty reasons to despair. The pandemic marks a stretch on the timeline that tangles with a teetering democracy, a deteriorating planet , the loss of human rights that once felt unshakable . When the world is falling apart Land Before Time style, it can feel trite, sniffing out the beauty – useless, firing off flares to anyone looking for signs of life. But, while I’m under no delusions that if we just keep trudging forward we’ll find our own oasis of waterfalls and grassy meadows glistening in the sunshine beneath a heavenly chorus, I wonder if trivializing small acts of beauty, connection, and hope actually cuts us off from resources essential to our survival. The group of abandoned dinosaurs were keeping each other alive and making each other laugh well before they made it to their fantasy ending.

Read More: How Ice Cream Became My Own Personal Act of Resistance

After the monarch butterfly went on the endangered-species list, my friend and fellow writer Hannah Soyer sent me wildflower seeds to plant in my yard. A simple act of big hope – that I will actually plant them, that they will grow, that a monarch butterfly will receive nourishment from whatever blossoms are able to push their way through the dirt. There are so many ways that could fail. But maybe the outcome wasn’t exactly the point. Maybe hope is the dogged insistence – the stubborn defiance – to continue cultivating moments of beauty regardless. There is value in the planting apart from the harvest.

I can’t point out a single collective lesson from the pandemic. It’s hard to see any great “we.” Still, I see the faces in my moms’ group, making pancakes for their kids and popping on between strings of meetings while we try to figure out how to raise these small people in this chaotic world. I think of my friends on Instagram tending to the selves they discovered when no one was watching and the scarf of ribbons stretching the length of more than three football fields. I remember my family of three, holding hands on the way up the ramp to the library. These bits of growth and rings of support might not be loud or right on the surface, but that’s not the same thing as nothing. If we only cared about the bottom-line defeats or sweeping successes of the big picture, we’d never plant flowers at all.

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essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

The last year has been like no other.

Since March 2020, every person on the planet has had their life shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic in some way. In the midst of the hardship and challenges, there’s been the sense among many people that this period has helped us evaluate our lives and focus on what’s truly important.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ve learned something from this moment.

In response to the pandemic, StoryCorps — a nonprofit dedicated to recording the largest collection of human stories and winner of the 2015 TED Prize — created StoryCorps Connect , a new tool to bring together loved ones via video conferencing and record the audio of their conversations.

Below are excerpts from a handful of the thousands of interviews recorded in recent months through StoryCorps Connect.

Lesson #1: The pandemic has helped us find deeper meaning in our work

Two mail carriers see the value in every delivery they make

Before getting a job as a mail carrier in Palm Beach, Florida, Evette Jourdain was going through a hard time — she’d lost her father, her brother and then her home. Finding reliable work helped tremendously, but then came COVID-19.

As Jourdain talked to her coworker , fellow postal worker Craig Boddie, she shared how she was feeling. “My anxiety levels are always on 10,” she says. “I pray on my way to work, I pray on my lunch break, I pray when I’m at the box. What keeps me going is just the fact that I need to keep going.”

Boddie agreed. His wife has autoimmune disease, and as he puts it, “Every day I wake up and wonder, ‘Is this the day that COVID-19 is gonna come home with me?’”

But he also knows that his work is more important than ever, and he thinks about how each package he carries contains something to keep people afloat in some way. “We’re like a lifeline — getting these people their medicines, their supplies.”

A health care provider gains inspiration from a classic novel 

Josh Belser and Sam Dow are good friends who grew up in Tampa, Florida, and who now both work in healthcare 400 miles apart — Belser as a nurse in Syracuse, New York, and Dow as a health technician in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

And with COVID-19, they’ve both found themselves on the frontlines. “My floor was one of the first that was converted to strictly dealing with COVID patients. Our jobs changed like overnight,” says Dow in their StoryCorps conversation. “There was no dress rehearsal — the numbers started to go up and it was show time.”

So how did they get through? Dow tells his friend he found some inspiration in Albert Camus’s classic novel The Plague . “It’s about an epidemic, and the main character was a doctor,” he explains. “And he says the way to get through something like this is to be a decent person. Somebody asks him, ‘What makes a decent person?’ He says, ‘I don’t know but, for me, it’s just doing my job the best way I can.’”

Dow says he’s tried to do exactly that. “Hopefully I made a difference in people’s lives.”

Lesson #2: Family rhythms have shifted, but our ties are as important as ever

A grandmother takes strength from her ancestors

Like so many other people, COVID-19 took Jackie Stockton by surprise. One day, she was at her church in Long Beach Island, New Jersey, celebrating her 90th birthday — and the next thing she knew, she was in the hospital. What’s more, she was part of a community cluster, and five members of the church eventually died from the virus, including Stockton’s best friend as well as her son-in-law.

Stockton spoke to her daughter , Alice Stockton-Rossini, about these losses. She says, “I remember 9/11 as though it just happened, but then it was over. This will never, ever be over.”

As a way to cope, she finds herself thinking of her great-grandmother. “She lost half of her children. She lived through the worst kind of hell,” she recalls. “She was an amazing woman, and so was her husband. They just did the things they needed to do. And they survived.”

The pandemic brings together a mother and daughter

In 2005, attorney Chalana McFarland of Atlanta, Georgia, was convicted of mortgage fraud and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The judge hoped this harsh sentence would deter others from similar crimes, but it had severe consequences for McFarland’s 4-year-old daughter, Nia Cosby.

In 2020, with the onset of COVID-19, McFarland was transferred to home confinement. Upon being released, the first person she saw was her now college-age daughter. In a candid conversation during their first weekend together in 15 years, Nia describes their reunion as “one of the best moments of my life.”

McFarland agrees. “When I left, you were driving a Barbie car, and now you’re flexin’ in the Honda Accord,” she says. “We’ve had a relationship over the years, but it’s like pieces of a puzzle that we’re just now putting together. I can’t wait for you to discover how much alike we really are, because you haven’t really gotten to know who I am. But I see so much of me in you. Out of all the things that I’ve done in my life, you are the absolute one thing that I got right.”

A canceled reunion highlights the power of family stories

The Quander family has a long history in the US. Its matriarch, Nancy Carter, was one of 123 enslaved people owned by George Washington, and she was freed in his will. She later married Charles Quander, and in 1926, their descendents held the first Quander family reunion.

It took place every year since 1926 — until now.

“This one would have been the 95th reunion,” Rohulamin Quander, 76, tells his 18-year-old cousin , Alicia Argrett.

In lieu of gathering in person, Argrett asks him: “What would you like to pass on to me?” His reply: “That you are the keeper of the stories.”

Argrett appreciates his call to take this responsibility seriously. “As we’ve seen this year, you never know when your last [family reunion] could be,” she says. “I think it’s important to capture those opportunities while you still have them in your grasp. And I’m going to do what I can on my end to keep the spirit of the family alive.”

Lesson #3: Small gestures have a huge impact on our well-being

This pandemic led to the best date of her life — a staircase apart

As the director of microbiology at a hospital in Rochester, New York, Roberto Vargas’s job is to diagnose infectious disease. With his lab running constant COVID-19 tests, he needed to isolate himself from his wife, Susan Vargas, and their four children.

Initially, he stayed in a hotel but found it too lonely. So he moved into the family’s basement, stipulating that no one else was to go beyond the top of the stairs. One night, as the Vargases recall in their conversation, a coworker brought them all a home-cooked meal. “You sat at the bottom of the stairs in a rocking chair, and I was at the top. It was the first time we had been able to connect in so long,” says Susan.

This simple moment, she says, helped get her through the months of the pandemic, and it will forever be what she remembers most from this time: “As crazy as it sounds, it’s the best date I’ve ever had with you in my life.”

Mother and son reflect on a special, shared memory

In 2015, nine-year-old William Chambers went to work with his mother. Not to an office, but to a senior center near Boston, Massachusetts, where Ceceley Chambers works as an interfaith chaplain providing spiritual counsel to those with memory loss. Ceceley knew the seniors would enjoy spending time with a young person.

What she didn’t expect was for William to sit down at a table with a woman cradling a baby doll she thought was real, and talk to her as easily as if she were his friend. “You just jumped into her world,” she recalls.

As Ceceley continues her work during the pandemic, both she and William have been thinking about that moment a lot. Although the structure of her days hasn’t changed, she’s seeing much more fear in those she’s counseling. William says he has been working hard to cultivate empathy for whatever mood she comes home with. Thinking of that woman with the doll and the other patients helps him.

He adds, “They made me think you should enjoy life as much as you can, ‘cause it doesn’t happen forever.”

Want to record an interview with a loved one — nearby or far away — about their experiences during the pandemic? Here’s how to get started . You can also explore more StoryCorps stories here .

Watch StoryCorps founder Dave Isay’s TED Prize Talk here:

About the author

Kate Torgovnick May is a journalist and writer based in Los Angeles. A former storyteller at TED, she has worked with the ambitious thinkers of the TED Prize and Audacious Project, helping them share their stories in video and text. She's also the author of the narrative nonfiction book, CHEER!: Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders, and has written for the television series NCIS and Hellcats. Read more about her work at KateTorgovnickMay.com.

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March 13, 2023

5 Things We’ve Learned from COVID in Three Years

The World Health Organization declared the COVID outbreak a pandemic three years ago. Here’s what’s changed since then

By Stephanie Pappas

An aerial view of a COVID memorial, showing thousands of small white flags.

People visit the In America: Remember  public art installation near the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., on September 20, 2021. The installation commemorates all the Americans who have died because of COVID and is a concept by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg. It includes more than 650,000 small plastic flags, some with personal messages to those who have died, planted in 20 acres of the National Mall.

Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Three years ago, on March 11, 2020, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), announced that the coronavirus that causes COVID was spreading worldwide and that the outbreak was officially a pandemic . At the time, there were more than 118,000 confirmed cases of COVID and 4,291 official deaths.

“In the days and weeks ahead,” Ghebreyesus said in a press conference at the time, “we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries climb even higher.”

Three years later the WHO has recorded more than 6.8 million COVID deaths, though studies of global excess mortality, or deaths above and beyond the expected amount in a given time, suggest the actual number is more than double that amount . In the U.S., there have been an estimated 1.1 million deaths from COVID, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Long COVID, which occurs when people experience lingering or new symptoms even after recovering from the initial infection, has also emerged as a threat that is still mysterious, though doctors are increasingly honing in on possible causes and treatments .

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The most at-risk populations now are individuals with preexisting chronic illnesses whose health is fragile and for whom hospitalization is a regular occurrence, says Jeremy Faust, an emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. COVID is one more factor that can push those individuals toward death. As a result, the pandemic is still causing excess mortality in the U.S. Mortality fluctuates from month to month but was approximately 10 percent higher in November 2022 than it was prepandemic, Faust says.

If March 2020 was like a flood, Faust says, today the world is no longer drowning. But the new normal is just a bit worse than before, he says: “Sea level is just higher,” Faust adds.

There is greater awareness now that a pandemic virus can rock societies, says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. That awareness has not always translated to action, however. “It’s still not highly prioritized by policy makers, and there are really big questions about how the U.S. could respond” to a future pandemic, Adalja says. Public health missteps in the 2022–2023 monkeypox outbreak , ranging from poor access to testing to clumsy vaccine distribution, echoed those early in the COVID pandemic, he says.

“Until [infectious disease] is prioritized in a way that national security is, I don’t think you’re going to see full resilience,” Adalja says. “What you need is a proactive, sustained approach that doesn’t just last an election cycle.”

Despite the challenges of building preparedness, we have learned some hard-won lessons about SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID, that could inform our approach to future pandemics—and public health in general.

mRNA Vaccines Are Safe, Powerful and Effective

One of the unambiguous successes of the response to the COVID pandemic was the rapid development of effective vaccines .

The pandemic was the first large-scale test for mRNA vaccine technology, which proved safe and effective against severe disease and death even as the virus evolved to form new variants. A recent analysis by the Commonwealth Fund , an independent research group that focuses on health care issues, found that in the two years after vaccines were introduced in the U.S., the shots prevented an estimated 18 million hospitalizations and three million deaths.

Masks and mask mandates became a political flashpoint during the pandemic, but the evidence shows that they slow the spread of COVID and other respiratory illnesses . For instance, according to the CDC , at least 10 studies as of late 2021 found that after local authorities implemented universal masking mandates, infection rates declined.

The best protection comes from high-quality N95 and KN95 masks . An influential publication in February 2022 in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report compared people who had tested positive for COVID and people who had not and assessed their mask-wearing habits. Among 534 participants who reported their mask type, a consistent cloth mask usage lowered the odds of testing positive by 56 percent, surgical mask wearing lowered the odds by 66 percent, and N95 or KN95 usage lowered the odds by 83 percent. Masks are most effective when they are sealed well, worn correctly and layered with other precautions.

Indoor Air Quality Matters 

In early 2020 no one knew how the virus spread, and the CDC and other health agencies around the world were sending out mixed messages. Hand sanitizer became a national obsession. People wiped down their groceries or left them overnight in their garage.

But research would soon confirm that the virus primarily spread through the air rather than via surfaces. This realization has triggered an interest in improving indoor air quality through both ventilation (letting outside air in) and filtration (cleaning the air of particles and pathogens). Research has found that continuous high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration can remove the vast majority of COVID viral particles in the air and dramatically lower exposure. And the effect isn’t limited to COVID: filtration removes other viral particles such as flu from the air, too.

Wastewater Tracking Is Useful for COVID and Other Diseases

The idea to track viral spread through wastewater first arose early in 2020 and has now become a national program . Wastewater has provided up to several weeks’ warning of coming viral surges because people begin to shed SARS-CoV-2 before they feel symptoms or seek medical care. Wastewater tracking is now integrated into other disease surveillance. Scientists have used sewage to track surges of viruses such as RSV and influenza .

Genomic Surveillance Is Key for Tracking Viral Evolution 

SARS-CoV-2 does not remain static. Over the past three years, variants such as Delta, which caused a surge of disease and severe illness in 2021, and the extremely transmissible Omicron , which spread rapidly in late 2021 and is still the dominant variant worldwide, have changed the course of the pandemic. Variants rise and fall in dominance as they outcompete one another to spread through the population, though Omicron subvariants currently make up 99.9% of all cases.

Countries and health agencies around the world have now established genomic surveillance to track novel concerning variants. Strong surveillance is key to responding to new pandemic twists and turns, according to Jarbas Barbosa, director of the Pan American Health Organization, which coordinates a regional genomic surveillance network in the Americas. The challenge is to maintain interest in these efforts even as the acute phase of the pandemic recedes.

“As we learn to live with this virus, countries must ... maintain and continue to strengthen surveillance,” Barbosa said a media briefing on March 9. “The risk of new variants is real.”

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15 Lessons the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Taught Us

What we've learned over the past 12 months could pay off for years to come.

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For the past year, our country has been mired in not one deep crisis but three: a pandemic , an economic meltdown and one of the most fraught political transitions in our history. Interwoven in all three have been challenging issues of racial disparity and fairness. Dealing with all of this has dominated much of our energy, attention and, for many Americans, even our emotions.

But spring is nearly here, and we are, by and large, moving past the worst moments as a nation — which makes it a good time to take a deep breath and assess the changes that have occurred. While no one would be displeased if we could magically erase this whole pandemic experience, it's been the crucible of our lives for a year, and we have much to learn from it — and even much to gain.

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AARP asked dozens of experts to go beyond the headlines and to share the deeper lessons of the past year that have had a particular impact on older Americans. More importantly, we asked them to share how we can use these learnings to make life better for us as we recover and move forward. Here is what they told us.

Lesson 1: Family Matters More Than We Realized

"The indelible image of the older person living alone and having to struggle — we need to change that. You're going to see more older people home-sharing within families and cohousing across communities to avoid future situations of tragedy."

—Marc Freedman, CEO and president of Encore.org and author of  How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations

Norman Rockwell would have needed miles of canvas to portray the American family this past year. You can imagine the titles: The Family That Zooms Together. Generations Under One Roof. Grandkids Outside My Window. The Shared Office . “Beneath the warts and complexities of all that went wrong, we rediscovered the interdependence of generations and how much we need each other,” Freedman says. Among the lessons:

Adult kids are OK. A Pew Research Center survey last summer found that 52 percent of the American population between ages 18 and 29 were living with parents, a figure unmatched since the Great Depression. From February to July 2020, 2.6 million young adults moved back with one or both parents. That's a lot of shared Netflix accounts. It's also a culture shift, says Karen Fingerman, director of the Texas Aging & Longevity Center at the University of Texas at Austin. “After the family dinners together, grandparents filling in for childcare, and the wise economic sense, it's going to be acceptable for adult family members to co-reside,” Fingerman says. “At least for a while.”

What We've Learned From the Pandemic

•  Lesson 1: Family Matters •  Lesson 2: Medical Breakthroughs •  Lesson 3: Self-Care Matters •  Lesson 4: Be Financially Prepared •  Lesson 5: Age Is Just a Number •  Lesson 6: Getting Online for Good •  Lesson 7: Working Anywhere •  Lesson 8: Restoring Trust •  Lesson 9: Gathering Carefully •  Lesson 10: Isolation's Health Toll •  Lesson 11: Getting Outside •  Lesson 12: Wealth Disparities’ Toll •  Lesson 13: Preparing for the Future •  Lesson 14: Tapping Telemedicine •  Lesson 15: Cities Are Changing

Spouses and partners are critical to well-being . “The ones who've done exceptionally well are couples in long-term relationships who felt renewed intimacy and reconnection to each other,” says social psychologist Richard Slatcher, who runs the Close Relationships Laboratory at the University of Georgia.

Difficult caregiving can morph into good-for-all home-sharing.  To get older Americans out of nursing homes and into a loved one's home — a priority that has gained in importance and urgency due to the pandemic — will take more than just a willing child or grandchild. New resources could help, like expanding Medicaid programs to pay family caregivers, such as an adult child, or initiatives like the Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, a Medicare-backed benefit currently helping 50,000 “community dwelling” seniors with medical services, home care and transportation.

"A positive piece this year has been the pause to reflect on how we can help people stay in their homes as they age, which is what everyone wants,” says Nancy LeaMond, AARP's chief advocacy and engagement officer. “If you're taking care of a parent, grandparent, aging partner or yourself, you see more than ever the need for community and government support, of having technology to communicate with your doctor and of getting paid leave for family caregivers. The pandemic has forced us to think about all these things, and that's very positive.”

Family may be the best medicine of all . “Now we know if you can't hug your 18-month-old granddaughter in person, you can read to her on FaceTime,” says Jane Isay, author of several books about family relationships. “You can send your adult kids snail mail. You can share your life's wisdom even from a distance. These coping skills may be the greatest gifts of COVID” — to an older generation that deeply and rightly fears isolation.

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Lesson 2: We Have Unleashed a Revolution in Medicine

" One of the biggest lessons we've learned from COVID is that the scientific community working together can do some pretty amazing things."

—John Cooke, M.D., medical director of the RNA Therapeutics Program at Houston Methodist Hospital's DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center

In the past it's taken four to 20 years to create conventional vaccines. For the new messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, it was a record-setting 11 months. The process may have changed forever the way drugs are developed.

"Breakthroughs” come after years of research . Supporting the development of the COVID-19 vaccines was more than a decade of research into mRNA vaccines, which teach human cells how to make a protein that triggers a specific immune response. The research had already overcome many challenging hurdles, such as making sure that mRNA wouldn't provoke inflammation in the body, says Lynne E. Maquat, director of the University of Rochester's Center for RNA Biology: From Genome to Therapeutics.

Vaccines may one day treat heart disease and more. In the near future, mRNA technology could lead to better flu vaccines that could be updated quickly as flu viruses mutate with the season, Maquat says, or the development of a “universal” flu shot that might be effective for several years. Drug developers are looking at vaccines for rabies, Zika virus and HIV. “I expect to see the approval of more mRNA-based vaccines in the next several years,” says mRNA researcher Norbert Pardi, a research assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

"We could use mRNA for diseases and conditions that can't be treated with drugs,” Cooke explains.

It may also target our biggest killers . Future mRNA therapies could help regenerate muscle in failing hearts and target the unique genetics of individual cancers with personalized cancer vaccines. “Every case of cancer is unique, with its own genetics,” Cooke says. “Doctors will be able to sequence your tumor and use it to make a vaccine that awakens your immune system to fight it.” Such mRNA vaccines will also prepare us for future pandemics, Maquat says.

In the meantime, use the vaccines we have available. Don't skip recommended conventional vaccines now available to older adults for the flu, pneumonia, shingles and more, Pardi says. The flu vaccine alone, which 1 in 3 older adults skipped in the winter 2019 season, saves up to tens of thousands of lives a year and lowers your risk for hospitalization with the flu by 28 percent and for needing a ventilator to breathe by 46 percent.

Lesson 3: Self Care Is Not Self-Indulgence

"Not only does self-care have positive outcomes for you, but it also sets an example to younger generations as something to establish and maintain for your entire life."

—Richelle Concepcion, clinical psychologist and president of the Asian American Psychological Association

As the virus upended life last spring, America became hibernation nation. Canned, dry and instant soup sales have risen 37 percent since last April. Premium chocolate sales grew by 21 percent in the first six months of the pandemic. The athleisure market that includes sweatpants and yoga wear saw its 2020 U.S. revenue push past an estimated $105 billion.

With 7 in 10 American workers doing their jobs from home, “COVID turned the focus, for all ages, on the small, simple pleasures that soothe and give us meaning,” says Isabel Gillies, author of  Cozy: The Art of Arranging Yourself in the World.

Why care about self-care? Pampering is vital to well-being — for yourself and for those around you. Activities that once felt indulgent became essential to our health and equilibrium, and that self-care mindset is likely to endure. Whether it is permission to take long bubble baths, tinkering in the backyard “she shed,” enjoying herbal tea or seeing noon come while still in your robe, “being good to yourself offers a necessary reprieve from whatever horrors threaten us from out there,” Gillies says. Being good to yourself is good for others, too. A recent European survey found that 77 percent of British respondents 75 and younger consider it important to take their health into their own hands in order not to burden the health care system.

Nostalgia TV, daytime PJs. It's OK to use comfort as a crutch. Comfort will help us ease back to life. Some companies are already hawking pajamas you can wear in public. Old-fashioned drive-ins and virtual cast reunions for shows like  Taxi, Seinfeld  and  Happy Days  will likely continue as long as the craving is there. (More than half the consumers in a 2020 survey reported finding comfort in revisiting TV and music from their childhood.) Even the iconic “Got Milk?” ads are back, after dairy sales started to show some big upticks.

So, cut yourself some slack. Learn a new skill; adopt a pet; limit your news diet; ask for help if you need it. You've lived long enough to see the value of prioritizing number one. “Not only does self-care have positive outcomes for you,” Concepcion says, “but it also sets an example to younger generations as something to establish and maintain for your entire life."

Lesson 4: Have a Stash Ready for the Next Crisis

"The need to augment our retirement savings system to help people put away emergency savings is crucial."

—J. Mark Iwry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former senior adviser to the U.S. secretary of the Treasury

Before the pandemic, nearly 4 in 10 households did not have the cash on hand to cover an unexpected $400 expense, according to a Federal Reserve report. Then the economic downturn hit. By last October, 52 percent of workers were reporting reduced hours, lower pay, a layoff or other hits to their employment situation. A third had taken a loan or early withdrawal from a retirement plan , or intended to. “Alarm bells were already ringing, but many workers were caught off guard without emergency savings,” says Catherine Collinson, CEO and president of the Transamerica Institute. “The pandemic has laid bare so many weaknesses in our safety net."

Companies can help . One solution could be a workplace innovation that's just beginning to catch on: an employee-sponsored rainy-day savings account funded with payroll deductions. By creating a dedicated pot of savings, the thinking goes, workers are less likely to tap retirement accounts in an emergency. “It's much better from a behavioral standpoint to separate short-term savings from long-term savings,” Iwry says. (AARP has been working to make these accounts easier to create and use and is already offering them to its employees.)

Funding that emergency savings account with automatic payroll deductions is a key to the program's success. “Sometimes you think you don't have the money to save, but if a little is put away for you each pay period, you don't feel the pinch,” Iwry notes.

We're off to a good start . Thanks to quarantines and forced frugality, Americans’ savings rate — the average percentage of people's income left over after taxes and personal spending — skyrocketed last spring, peaking at an unprecedented 33.7 percent. On the decline since then, most recently at 13.7 percent, it's still above the single-digit rates characterizing much of the past 35 years. Where it will ultimately settle is unclear; currently, it's in league with high-saving countries Mexico and Sweden. The real model of thriftiness: China, where, according to the latest available figures, the household savings rate averaged at least 30 percent for 14 years straight.

Lesson 5: The Adage ‘Age Is Just a Number’ Has New Meaning

"This isn't just about the pandemic. Your health is directly related to lifestyle — nutrition, physical activity, a healthy weight and restorative sleep."

—Jacob Mirsky, M.D., primary care physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital Revere HealthCare Center and an instructor at Harvard Medical School

Just a few months ago, researchers at Scotland's University of Glasgow asked a big question: If you're healthy, how much does older age matter for risk of death from COVID? The health records of 470,034 women and men revealed some intriguing answers.

Age accounted for a higher risk, but comorbidities (essentially, having two or more health issues simultaneously) mattered much more. Specifically, risk for a fatal infection was four times higher for healthy people 75 and older than for all participants younger than 65. But if you compared all those 75 and older — including those with chronic health condition s like high blood pressure, obesity or lung problems — that shoved the grim odds up thirteenfold.




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Live healthfully, live long . More insights from the study: A healthy 75-year-old was one-third as likely to die from the coronavirus as a 65-year-old with multiple chronic health issues. The bottom line: Age affects your risk of severe illness with COVID, but you should be far more focused on avoiding chronic health conditions. “Coronavirus highlighted yet another reason it's so important to attend to health factors like poor diet and lack of exercise that cause so much preventable illness and death,” says Massachusetts General's Mirsky. “Lifestyle changes can improve your overall health, which will likely directly reduce your risk of developing severe COVID or dying of COVID."

Exercise remains critical . In May 2020 a British study of 387,109 adults in their 40s through 60s found a 38 percent higher risk for severe COVID in people who avoided physical activity. “Mobility should be considered one of the vital signs of health,” concludes exercise psychologist David Marquez, a professor in the department of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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Lesson 6: We Befriended Technology, and There's No Going Back

"Folks who have tried online banking will stay with it. It won't mean they won't go back to branches, but they might go back for a different purpose."

—Theodora Lau, founder of financial technology consulting firm Unconventional Ventures

Of course, the world has long been going digital . But before the pandemic, standard operating procedure for most older Americans was to buy apples at the grocery, try the shoes on first before buying, have your doctor measure your blood pressure and see that hot new movie at the theater.

Arguably the biggest long-term societal effect of the pandemic will be a grand flipping of the switch that makes the digital solution the first choice of many Americans for handling life's tasks. We still may cling to a few IRL (in real life) experiences, but it is increasingly apparent that easy-to-use modern virtual tools are the new default.

"If nothing else, COVID has shown us how resilient and adaptable humans are as a society when forced to change,” says Joseph Huang, CEO of StartX, a nonprofit that helps tech companies get off the ground. “We've been forced to learn new technologies that, in many cases, have been the only safe way to continue to live our lives and stay connected to our loved ones during the pandemic.”

The tech boom wasn't just video calls and streaming TV. Popular food delivery apps more than doubled their earnings last year. Weddings and memorial services were held over videoconferences (yes, we'll go back to in-person ones but probably with cameras and live feeds now to include remote participants). In the financial sector, PayPal reported that its fastest-growing user group was people over 50; Chase said about half of its new online users were 50-plus. In telehealth, more doctors conducted routine exams via webcam than ever before — and, in response, insurance coverage expanded for these remote appointments. “It quickly became the only way to operate at scale in today's world,” Huang says, “both for us as patients and for the doctors and nurses who treat us. Telemedicine will turn out to be a better and more effective experience in many cases, even after COVID ends."

Tech is for all . To financial technology expert Lau, the tech adoption rate by older people is no surprise. She never believed the myth that older people lack such knowledge. “There's a difference between knowing how to use something versus preferring to use it,” Lau says. “Sometimes we know how, but we prefer face-to-face interaction.” And now those preferences are shifting.

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Lesson 7: Work Is Anywhere Now — a Shift That Bodes Well for Older Americans

"One of the major impacts of the new working-from-home focus is that more jobs are becoming non-location-specific."

—Carol Fishman Cohen, cofounder of iRelaunch, which works with employers to create mid-career return-to-work programs for older workers

Necessity is the mother of reinvention : Forced to work remotely since the onset of the pandemic, millions of workers — and their managers — have learned they could be just as productive as they were at the office, thanks to videoconferencing, high-speed internet and other technologies. “This has opened a lot of corporate eyes,” says Steven Allen, professor of economics at North Carolina State University's Poole College of Management. Twitter, outdoor-goods retailer REI and insurer Lincoln Financial Group are a few of the companies that have announced plans to shift toward more remote work on a permanent basis.

Face-lift your Face-Time . Yes, many workers are tied to a location: We will always need nurses, police, roofers, machine operators, farmers and countless other workers to show up. But if you are among the people who are now able to work remotely, you may be able to live in a less expensive area than where your employer is based — or work right away from the home you were planning to retire to later on, Cohen says. As remote hiring takes hold, how you project yourself on-screen becomes more of a factor. “This puts more pressure on you to make sure you show up well in a virtual setting,” Cohen notes. And don't assume being comfortable with Zoom is a feather in your cap; mentioning it is akin to listing “proficient in Microsoft Word” on your résumé.

Self-employed workers have suffered during the pandemic — nearly two-thirds report being hurt financially, according to the “State of Independence in America 2020” report from MBO Partners — but remote work could fuel their comeback. Before the pandemic, notes Steve King, partner at Emergent Research, businesses with a high percentage of remote workers used a high percentage of independent contractors. “Now that companies are used to workers not being as strongly attached physically to a workplace, they'll be more amenable to hiring independent workers,” he says.

Travel less, stay longer . Tired of sitting in traffic to and from work? Can't stand flying across country for a single meeting? Ridding yourself of these hassles with an internet connection and Zoom calls may be the incentive you need to work longer. People often quit jobs because of little frustrations, Allen says. But now, he adds, “the things that wear you down may be going by the wayside."

Ageism remains a threat . Older workers — who before the coronavirus enjoyed lower unemployment rates than mid-career workers — have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. In December, 45.5 percent of unemployed workers 55 and older had been out of work for 27 weeks or more, compared with 35.1 percent of younger job seekers. Some employers, according to reports this fall, are replacing laid-off older workers with younger, lower-cost ones, instead of recalling those older employees. Psychological studies, Allen says, indicate that older workers have better communication and interpersonal skills — both of which are critical for successful remote work. But whether those strengths can offset age discrimination in the workplace is unknown.

Lesson 8: Our Trust in One Another Has Frayed, but It Can Be Slowly Restored

"Truth matters, but it requires messaging and patience.”

—Historian John M. Barry, author of  The Great Influenza

Even before our views perforated along lines dotted by pandemic politics, race, class and whether Bill Gates is trying to save us or track us, we were losing faith in society. In 1997, 64 percent of Americans put a “very great or good deal of trust” in the political competence of their fellow citizens; today only a third of us feel that way. A 2019 Pew survey found that the majority of Americans say most people can't be trusted. It's even tougher to trust in the future. Only 13 percent of millennials say America is the greatest country in the world, compared with 45 percent of members of the silent generation. No wonder that by June of last year, “national pride” was lower than at any point since Gallup began measuring. To trust again:

As life returns, look beyond your familiar pod. “Distrust breeds distrust, but hope isn't lost for finding common ground, especially for older people,” says Encore.org's Freedman. “Even in the era of ‘OK, boomer’ and ‘OK, millennial’ — memes that dismiss entire generations with an eye roll — divides are bridgeable with what Freedman calls “proximity and purpose.” Rebuilding trust together, across generations, under shared priorities and common humanity.” He points to pandemic efforts like Good Neighbors from the home-sharing platform Nesterly, which pairs older and younger people to provide cross-generational support, and UCLA's Generation Xchange, which connects Gen X mentors with children in grades K-3 in South Los Angeles, where educational achievement is notoriously poor. “Engaging with people for a common goal makes you trust them,” he says.

Be patient but verify facts. History also provides a guide. In the wake of the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed between 50 million and 100 million people, trust in authority withered after local and national government officials played down the disease's threats in order to maintain wartime morale. Historian Barry points out that the head of the Army's’ division of communicable diseases was so worried about the collective failure of trust that he warned that “civilization could easily disappear ... from the face of the earth.” It didn't then, and it won't now, Barry says.

Verify facts and then decide. Check reliable, balanced news sources (such as Reuters and the Associated Press) and unbiased fact-checking sites (such as PolitiFact) before clamping down on an opinion.

Perhaps most important, be open to changing conditions and viewpoints. “As we see vaccines and therapeutic drugs slowly gain widespread success in fighting this virus, I think we'll start to overcome some of our siloed ways of thinking and find relief — together as one — that this public health menace is ending,” Barry adds. “We have to put our faith in other people to get through this together.”

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Lesson 9: The Crowds Will Return, but We'll Gather Carefully

"Masks and sanitizers will be part of the norm for years, the way airport and transportation security measures are still in place from 9/11."

— Christopher McKnight Nichols, associate professor of history at Oregon State University and founder of the Citizenship and Crisis Initiative

The COVID-19 pandemic won't end with bells tolling or a ticker-tape parade . Instead, we'll slowly, cautiously ease back to familiar activities. For all our fears of the coronavirus, many of us can't wait to resume a public life: When 1,000 people 65 and older were asked which pursuits they were most eager to start anew post-pandemic, 78 percent said going out to dinner, 76 percent picked getting together with family and friends, 71 percent chose travel, and 30 percent cited going to the movies.

Seeing art , attending concerts, cheering in a stadium — even going to class reunions we might have once dreaded — we'll do them again. But how will we return to feeling comfortable in groups of tens, hundreds and thousands? And will these gatherings be different? How we come together:

Don't expect the same old, same old . Just as the rationing, isolation and economic crisis caused by World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic “led to a kind of awakening of how we assembled,” Nichols says, expect COVID to shake up the nature and personality of our public spaces. Back in the 1920s, it was the rise of jazz clubs, organized athletics, fraternal organizations and the golden age of the movie cinema. As the pandemic subsides, we'll probably see more temperature-controlled outdoor event and dining spaces, more pedestrian and bicycling options, more city parks and more hybrid events that give you the option to attend virtually.

Retrain your brain . Psychologists say the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy can help people at any age regain the certainty and confidence they need to venture into the public space post-pandemic. “Visualizing good outcomes and repeating a stated goal can help overcome whatever obstacles are holding you back,” says Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University, who suggests making an “if-then plan” to reacclimate to public life. If eating indoors at a restaurant is too agitating, even if you've been vaccinated, then try a table outside first. If a bucket-list family vacation to Italy feels too daunting, then book a stateside trip together first. “There's always an alternative if something stands in the way of you fulfilling your wish,” she says. “Eventually, you'll get there.”

Lesson 10: Loneliness Hurts Health More Than We Thought

"What we've learned from COVID is that isolation is everyone's problem. It doesn't just happen to older adults; it happens to us all."

— Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University

How deadly is the condition of loneliness? During the first five months of the pandemic, nursing home lockdowns intended to safeguard older and vulnerable adults with dementia contributed to the deaths of an additional 13,200 people compared with previous years, according to a shocking  Washington Post  investigation published last September. “People with dementia are dying,” the article notes, “not just from the virus but from the very strategy of isolation that's supposed to protect them.”

Isolation may be the new normal . Fifty-six percent of adults age 50-plus said they felt isolated in June 2020, double the number who felt lonely in 2018, a University of Michigan poll found. Rates of psychological distress rose for all adults as the pandemic deepened — increasing sixfold for young adults and quadrupling for those ages 30 to 54, according to a Johns Hopkins University survey published in  JAMA  in June. And it's hard to tell whether the workplace culture many of us relied on for social support will fully return anytime soon.

Those 50-plus have a leg up. “Older adults with higher levels of empathy, compassion, decisiveness and self-reflection score lowest for loneliness,” says Dilip Jeste, M.D., director of the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging at the University of California, San Diego. “Research shows that many older adults have handled COVID psychologically better than younger adults. With age comes experience and wisdom. You've lived through difficult times before and survived.”

Help yourself by helping others. Jeste says that when older adults share their wisdom with younger people, everyone benefits. “Young people are reassured about the future,” he adds. “Older adults feel even more confident. They're role models. Their contributions matter."

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Lesson 11: When Your World Gets Small, Nature Lets Us Live Large

"For older people in particular, nature provided a way to shake off the weight and hardships associated with stay-at-home orders, of social isolation and of the stress of being the most vulnerable population in the pandemic."

— Kathleen Wolf, a research social scientist in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington

One silver lining to COVID-19's dark cloud : Clouds themselves became more familiar to all of us. So did birds, trees, bees, shooting stars and window gardens. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans have a new appreciation for nature because of the pandemic, according to one survey that also found three-quarters of respondents reported a boost in their mood while spending time outside.

By nearly every measure, the planet got more love during COVI D. And wouldn't it be nice if that continued going forward? The ins and outs on our new outdoor life:

Move somewhere greener (or at least move around more outside). How you access nature is up to you, but consider the options. Nearly a third of Americans were considering moving to less populated areas, according to a Harris Poll taken last year during the pandemic. Walking, running and hiking became national pastimes. One day last September, Boston's BlueBikes bike-share system saw its highest-ever single-day ridership, with 14,400 trips recorded. Stargazers and bird-watchers helped push binocular sales up 22 percent.

Once known mainly as a retirement activity, pickleball has been the fastest-growing sport in America, with almost 3.5 million U.S. players of all ages participating in the contact-free outdoor net game designed for players of any athletic ability. The return of the pandemic “victory garden” reflects research that finds 79 percent of patients feel more relaxed and calm after spending time in a garden.

Make the city less gritty . The University of Washington's Wolf thinks that our collective nature kick will go beyond a run on backyard petunias. Her research brief on the benefits of nearby nature in cities for older adults suggests we may rethink the design of neighborhood environments to facilitate older people's outdoor activities. That means more places to sit, more green spaces associated with the health status of older people, safer routes and paths, and more allotment for community gardens. “It's impossible to overestimate the value these outdoor spaces have on reducing stressful life events, improving working memory and adding meaning and happiness in older people's lives,” Wolf says.

If you can't get out, bring nature in . Even video and sounds of nature can provide health gains to those shut indoors, says Marc Berman of the University of Chicago's Environmental Neuroscience Lab. “Listening to recordings of crickets chirping or waves crashing improved how our subjects performed on cognitive tests,” he says.

Above all, the environment is in your hands, so take action to protect it . “We've seen a lot of older folks stepping up their activity in trail conservation, stream cleaning, being forest guides and things like that this year, which indicates a shift in how that age group interacts with nature,” says Cornell University gerontologist Karl Pillemer.

"There's an old saw that older people care less than younger people about the environment. But given this year's nature boom, I'm expecting that to change. As the generation that gave birth to the environmental movement enters retirement, we're likely to see a wave of interest in conservation among those 60 and up."

Lesson 12: You Can Hope for Stability — but Best Be Prepared for the Opposite

"COVID-19, perhaps more than any other disaster, demonstrated that we need to continue ensuring response plans are flexible and scalable. You can't predict exactly what a disaster will bring, but if you know what tools you have in your tool kit, you can pull out the right one you need when you need it."

— Linda Mastandrea, director of the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

The pandemic was among the toughest slap-in-the-face moments in recent history to remind us that everything —  everything  — in our lives can change in a moment. While older Americans may have a deep-seated desire for stability and security after all it took to get to an advanced age, we certainly cannot bank on it. Which is why the word of the year, and perhaps the coming century, is “resilience.” Not just at the individual level but at every social tier, from family to community to the nation as a whole.

Banish fear . “We don't have to live in fear” of some looming disaster, says former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tom Frieden, now president and CEO of global public health initiative Resolve to Save Lives. “By strengthening our defenses and investing in preparedness, we can live easier knowing that communities have what they need to better respond in moments of crisis."

Preparation must start at the top . For government, that means a new commitment to plans that allow, not so much for stockpiles but for the ability to ramp up production of crucial equipment when needed. “We need increased, sustained, predictable base funding for public health security defense programs that prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks such as COVID-19 or pandemic influenza,” Frieden says.

Being creative and even entrepreneurial helps , says Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Earth Institute. Warehouses full of masks could have helped us initially, he says, but stockpiles of equipment aren't the answer on their own. In a free market there is pressure to sell off surpluses, so he suggests we reimagine our manufacturing capacities for times of emergency. When whiskey distillers stepped up to make hand sanitizer, and auto manufacturers switched gears to build ventilators, we saw “glimmers of solutions,” Schlegelmilch says, the sort of responses we may need to tee up in the future.

Focus on health care . Prime among the areas that need to be addressed, crisis management consultant Luiz Hargreaves says, are overwhelmed health care systems. “They were living a disaster before the pandemic. When the pandemic came, it was a catastrophe.” But Hargreaves hopes we will use this wake-up call to produce new solutions, rather than to return to old ways. “Extraordinary times,” he says, “call for extraordinary measures."

Lesson 13: Wealth Inequality Is Growing, and It Affects Us All

"It's outrageous that somebody could work full-time and not even be able to pay rent, let alone food and clothing. There's a recognition that there's a problem on both the left and right. "

— Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize–winning economist, Columbia University professor and author of  The Price of Inequality

"The data is pretty dramatic,” says Stiglitz, one of America's most-esteemed economists. Government economists estimate that unemployment rates in this pandemic are less than 5 percent for the highest earners but as high as 20 percent for the lowest-paid ones. “People at the bottom have disproportionately experienced the disease, and those at the bottom have lost jobs in enormous disproportion, too."

As white-collar professionals work from home and stay socially distant, frontline workers in government, transportation and health care — as well as retail, dining and other service sectors — face far greater health risks and unemployment. “We try to minimize interactions as we try to protect ourselves,” he says, “yet we realize that minimizing those interactions is also taking away jobs.” The disparate effects of the pandemic are particularly evident along racial lines, points out Jean Accius, AARP senior vice president for global thought leadership. “Job losses have hit communities of color disproportionately,” he says. And there's a health gap, too, with people of color — who have a greater likelihood than white Americans to be frontline workers — experiencing higher rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalizations and mortality, and lower rates of vaccinations. “What we're seeing is a double whammy for communities of color,” Accius says. “It is hitting them in their wallets. And it's hitting them with regard to their health."

Those economic and health crises, along with protests over racial injustice over the past year, says Accius, “have really sparked major conversations around what do we need to do in order to advance equity in this country."

A rising gap between rich and poor in any society, Stiglitz argues, increases economic instability, reduces opportunities and results in less investment in public goods such as education and public transportation. But the country appears primed to make some changes that could help narrow the wealth gap, he says. Among them are President Biden's proposals to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, increase the earned income tax credit for low-income workers and provide paid sick leave. Stiglitz also proposes raising taxes on gains from sales of stocks and other securities not held in retirement accounts. “The notion that people who work for a living shouldn't pay higher taxes than those who speculate for a living seems not to be a hard idea to get across,” Stiglitz says.

"Many people continue to say, ‘It's time for us to get back to normal,'” Accius says. “Well, going back to normal means that we're in a society where those that have the least continue to be impacted the most — a society where older adults are marginalized and communities of color are devalued. We have to be honest with what we are going through as a collective nation. And then we have to be bold and courageous, to really build a society where race and other social demographic factors do not determine your ability to live a longer, healthier and more productive life.”

Who Owns America's Wealth?

For some, hard times bring opportunity.

Want a positive reminder of the American way? When the going got tough this past summer, many people responded by planning a new business. In the second half of 2020, there was a 40 percent jump over the prior year's figures in applications to form businesses highly likely to hire employees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Significantly, no such spike occurred during the Great Recession, points out Alexander Bartik, assistant professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “That's cause for some optimism — that there are people who are trying to start new things,” he says. One possible reason this time is different: Unlike during that recession, the stock market and home values have held on, and those sources of personal wealth are often what people draw upon to fund small-business start-ups.

High-propensity* Business Applications in the U.S.

*Businesses likely to have employees

the number of applications to form businesses likely to hire employees greatly increased during the pandemic

Lesson 14: The Benefits of Telemedicine Have Become Indisputable

"The processes we developed to avoid face-to-face care have transformed the way we approach diabetes care management.”

— John P. Martin, M.D., codirector of Diabetes Complete Care for Kaiser Permanente Southern California

If there was ever any truth to the stereotype of the older person whose life revolved around a constant calendar of in-person doctor appointments, it's certainly been tossed out the window this past year due to the strains of the pandemic on our health care system. The timing was fortuitous in one way: Telemedicine was ready for prime time and has proved to be a godsend, particularly for those with chronic health conditions.

Say goodbye to routine doctor visits . Patients who sign up for remote blood sugar monitoring at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California use Bluetooth-enabled meters to transmit results via a smartphone app directly to their health records. “ Remote monitoring allows us to recognize early when there should be adjustments to treatment,” Martin says.

We need to push for more access . The pandemic underlines the need for more home-based medical help with chronic conditions. But that takes both willingness and a lot of gear, such as Bluetooth-enabled blood pressure monitors and, on the doctor side, systems to store and analyze the data. “People need access to the equipment, and health care systems have to be ready to handle all that data,” says Mirsky of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Group doctor visits may be a way forward . Mirsky is conducting virtual group visits and remote monitoring of blood sugar for his patients with type 2 diabetes. “Instead of having a few minutes with each person to talk about important issues — like blood sugar testing, diet and exercise — we get an hour or more to go over it,” he says. “At every meeting somebody in the group has a great tip I've never heard of, like a new YouTube exercise channel or fitness app. There's group support, too. I see group visits like this continuing into the future, becoming part of routine chronic disease care for all patients who want it."

Bottom line: The doctor is in (your house) . Managing chronic health conditions like diabetes “can't just be about getting in your car and driving to your doctor's office,” Martin says. Taking care of your health conditions yourself is the path forward.

Lesson 15: Our Cities Won't Ever Be the Same

"This is obviously a very big watershed moment in how we live, how we organize our cities and our communities. There are going to be long-lasting changes."

— Chris Jones, chief planner at Regional Plan Association, a New York–based urban planning organization

"When you're alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go downtown,” Petula Clark sang in her 1964 chart-topping ode to city life. Well, things change. Suddenly, crowds are the enemy, public buses and subways a health risk, packed office towers out of favor, and a roomy suburban home seems just where you want to be. But don't write off downtowns just yet.

The office and business district will look different. Many workers have little interest in returning to a 9-to-5 life. For those who do make the commute, they may find cubicles replaced with more flexible work spaces focused on common areas, with ample outdoor seating space for meetings and working lunches. And some now-empty offices will likely be converted into apartments and condos, making downtowns more vibrant. “Now you have an opportunity to remake a central business district into an actual neighborhood,” says Richard Florida, author of  The Rise of the Creative Class  and a cofounder of  CityLab,  an online publication about urbanism.

Public spaces will serve more of the public. Those areas set up for outdoor restaurant dining — some of those will likely remain. Streets and parking lots have been turned into plazas and promenades. Many cities have already opened miles of bike lanes; in 2020, Americans bought bikes, including electric bikes, in record numbers. “This idea of social space, where you can get outside and enjoy that active public realm, is going to become increasingly important,” says Lynn Richards, the president and CEO of Congress for the New Urbanism, which champions walkable cities.

Contributors to this report: Sari Harrar, David Hochman, Ronda Kaysen, Lexi Pandell, Jessica Ravitz and Ellen Stark

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Lessons we should learn from the covid-19 crisis, young people in serbia keep the community's morale high.

Milos Our Voices

About the author

Miloš Selaković (22), born in Užice but currently living in Belgrade. While studying at The Faculty of Security Studies, Miloš is also Advocacy Assistant for the Association of Students with Disabilities. During 2018, he was working as a correspondent for a well-known magazine in Serbia - Security see. In 2016, In the state athletics competition Milos won first place for the visually impaired in javelin throw. In addition to his commitment to his work and learning, Miloš expects next year to enroll in master's studies.

We can overcome these circumstances only through mutual cooperation, developed collective spirit, great social responsibility and implementation of preventive measures.

Successfully overcoming a crisis does not only mean successfully eliminating its consequences and reducing its negative impact. Overcoming a crisis also involves realizing one's own mistakes, shortcomings, deficiencies, readiness to respond to a crisis and constant work on combating it. We will overcome the crisis if we take something from it and if we learn lessons that will allow us to be more prepared and resilient when we have to face a new risk in the future.

Milos Selakovic

This crisis has already shown us that as humanity we must have a developed social consciousness, which usually becomes prominent in situations of risks and threats we are faced with. A large number of young people are using their time to contribute to the society, through various forms of coordinated volunteering and precaution measures, through online activities and provision of support. We adhere to the advised measures, but through our support, discussions, writing and organizing online events and activities we are helping keep the community morale high.

Experts and decision-makers around the world are prescribing measures to combat the spread of this virus, and our health care system is doing its best and we are eternally grateful to them. The virus pandemic showed us that we must build our resilience and that our health depends on each one of us. We are not responsible only for our own condition, but also for conditions of all those we were in contact with.

"In situations of uncertainty, panic, fear and special measures, people's spirit and healthy attitude should be specially preserved and be of paramount importance"

The morale and social activities are an important factor in our everyday lives, and they are especially pronounced in emergencies. In situations of uncertainty, panic, fear and special measures, people's spirit and healthy attitude should be specially preserved and be of paramount importance. Young people organize online events, various interactive competitions, shows, tournaments in popular computer games, stand-up comedy and similar. Thus, we influence each other through positive and calm attitude. We are here to support the elderly and our parents. Some museums and theatres enabled attending their programs and performances online. Class attendance is made possible, and young people in home quarantine can also attend online courses and trainings to learn new skills, improve their knowledge and interests.

During this crisis we have to overcome, I am writing this note to myself and each one of you, and as you are reading this I wonder: is there a flip side of the coin? I would like this to be the true reflection of things and I am working towards it, and I am sure you agree.

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5 life lessons COVID-19 has taught me

During this past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down and changed not just the way we live and work but also how we think and behave. Every part of the world has been affected, and every aspect of life has been impacted. Our everyday routines were brought to a stop, and any sense of normalcy was lost. While we stop and look at the world around us, I cannot help but realize what I used to take for granted. If anything, perhaps there are some life lessons to take away from this pandemic.

1. This world is interconnected. We often think of each country as a separate entity and being very different from one another. Within a few months of the virus first being identified, the virus spread to nearly every country, and a global pandemic was declared. Despite the differences and distance between places, we are battling the same virus and having the same struggles. It’s a reminder of just how our world economy and society are interconnected on many levels, including supply chains, communications, technology, and travel.

2. Humans are social creatures, and we need social interaction and human contact. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of social interaction and human contact within almost every aspect of our lives, including education, employment, entertainment, and recreation. Efforts to reduce the spread of the virus, including physical distancing, quarantine, and stay-at-home orders, have prompted and exacerbated social isolation and loneliness. Along with 35 million other individuals (accounting for 28% of the population) in the United States, I live alone, and this has meant little to no social interactions for months. And as much as I consider myself an independent person who has lived on their own for years and moved numerous times to new cities without knowing anyone there, this pandemic has made me realize how much I miss social interaction and things as simple as a hug or coffee with a friend at the café.

3. Humans are adaptive, and life is more flexible than we think. The pandemic has been a time of extraordinary change, and we have had to rapidly change and adapt to the evolving situation. Many individuals have lost jobs and have been forced to find creative ways to pay the bills. Many others began working from home.  Schools turned online with virtual learning. Many physicians started offering telemedicine. This pandemic has been a testament to just how resilient we are as humans and our ability to be flexible and creative in the face of uncertainty.

4. There is goodness and humanity, even in the darkness. At the start of the pandemic, there was a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) among hospitals and health care facilities, and many health care workers were reusing the same disposable mask for days or weeks at a time. Immediately, community members gathered together to procure masks, 3D print face shields, and hand sew masks and scrub caps for health care workers. Restaurants were donating food to hospital workers and first responders. And people were volunteering to bring groceries to the elderly. These acts of kindness and appreciation from the community has helped keep me and many of my fellow health care workers going, working day after day during this pandemic.

5. Life is precious. Be grateful for what we have. With over 225 thousand lives lost to the pandemic in the United States to date (and over 1.1 million worldwide), this pandemic has made me re-think my priorities and remember how precious life is. It has been a reminder to appreciate the smaller things in life – the things I often take for granted. With so many deaths each day, I am grateful for my family and friends, even if it means video calls and text messages while we cannot see each other in-person. With so many people falling ill, I am grateful for my health. With so many people losing jobs and becoming homeless, I am grateful for the food in my fridge and a place to call home. This pandemic has made me re-evaluate my life and assess my priorities and served as a reminder of how precious life is and appreciate the small things in life.

Christine Lau  is a physician.

Image credit:  Shutterstock.com

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Learning lessons from the COVID-19 experience: history saved lives

A medical historian whose team’s research on the 1918 flu influenced efforts to “flatten the curve” reflects on what the past three years have taught

Three years ago, the world stood on the precipice of a pandemic.

And as scientists raced to learn more about the virus that caused it, and medical teams tried desperately to save its first victims, nations turned to an unlikely source for protection.

In those early months, lessons from studying the 1918 influenza pandemic  helped save as many as 1.7 million lives in the United States alone , research suggests. Other studies have made  even greater estimates of infections prevented  worldwide.

Those lessons were largely drawn in part from  a study based at the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine . The team had found that steps taken in 1918 to reduce close indoor contact, encourage mask-wearing and increase ventilation had  reduced the death toll .

In early 2020, their data informed efforts to keep the new coronavirus from spreading so quickly that it would overwhelm hospitals and clinics -- a concept the U-M team came to call  “flattening the curve.”

And it worked, says Howard Markel, M.D., Ph.D., who led the U-M Medical School team that carried out the 1918 flu study with funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But now, looking back from the vantage point of three years, it’s clear that efforts to respond to future pandemics must use the recent history of COVID-19 as their main guide, he says.

That’s what he and others are now trying to help the Biden Administration’s COVID-19 response team do, by consulting on preparedness and response efforts.

“It’s not a matter of if we will have another pandemic, it’s a matter of when,” he said. “No one can tell where it’s going to come from, or when, or which virus – but it will happen.”

Learning from 1918

A physician and historian who has written dozens of books and essays on pandemics stretching back centuries, Markel is glad that the lessons revealed by the U-M team’s work had an impact during the height of COVID-19.

“History was incredibly helpful when informing us about social distancing, and it was really a privilege to be able to provide the numerical data to show that,” he said. “The participation in efforts to reduce spread around the world, before we had the tools we have now, was really remarkable and made a difference.”

Keeping society and healthcare afloat by heeding lessons from 1918 also bought time for scientists and companies to understand the virus, protect hospitals and infrastructure from beign flooded with patients, and develop vaccines and treatments.

In less than a year after the novel coronavirus was discovered, the first mRNA and traditional vaccines, and the first monoclonal antibody treatments, became available. The first rapid tests and oral medications were approved for use a few months later.

Learning from recent history

But the influenza virus and the novel coronavirus are very different from one another. And the political, information, medical and economic environments of the late 1910s and the early 2020s are light years apart.

The 1918 influenza research did show that resistance emerged to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as masking in public, as Markel’s colleague  J. Alex Navarro wrote in a 2020 essay.

But it wasn’t anywhere near as vocal and visible as the resistance to mask-wearing and vaccination, and promotion of unproven remedies, that started early in the COVID-19 pandemic, says Markel. The fact that top-level political leaders engaged in this was especially damaging.  Future pandemic responses may face the same – or worse, he warns.

Similarly, the team’s research showed that easing up on preventive measures too soon – which happened in some cities in 1918 and 1919 – also led to problems, as  Navarro wrote in another piece , and  Markel and Navarro wrote in the wake of a court ruling in Michigan  regarding a governor’s ability to declare or extend states of public health emergency.

But in COVID-19 this happened much more broadly, Markel notes. So teams preparing for the next pandemic should harness recent data on the impacts of masking, vaccination and social distancing, and anticipate broad-based resistance to protective measures.

At the same time, some positive lessons have emerged from the past three years, he reflects.

The importance of basic biomedical research – scientists working in relative obscurity for decades on the biology of the coronavirus and the potential use of mRNA and monoclonal antibodies in vaccines and treatments --- paid off in powerful and rapid ways.

The increased communication between the medical community and public health community in the past three years has led to a greater recognition of how social, economic, geographic, political and environmental factors affect a person’s risk of disease and their likelihood of severe illness or death.

This newfound attention to the social determinants of health, Markel notes, may make it more possible to treat medicine and public health as a continuum, rather than two separate fields.

COVID-19 also revealed major shortcomings in funding for public health infrastructure that leaves society vulnerable to future pandemics, he says.

“This could be a golden moment to really fix the public health system -- or not,” he said.

Another key thing that wasn’t present in 1918, but that pandemic response must consider now and going forward, is the fact that millions of Americans now live with health conditions that 100 years ago, or even 30 years ago, would have killed them. And that means they’re more vulnerable to infections.

“People receiving chemotherapy, transplant patients, or people who are immunocompromised for other reasons, are still at risk right now, especially in light of the new viral variants,” said Markel. “Everyone wants to move on from COVID-19. But if we’re all in this together, then we’re all in this together – not just when it’s convenient for some.”

Continuing to develop treatments and vaccines that provide protection against new strains of coronavirus will help protect the vulnerable, he says. It could also help sustain the industrial infrastructure needed to respond to the next pandemic.

The U-M team studied a lot of newspaper coverage from 1918 and 1919 to perform their research, because that was the main mass communication method of the day in pre-radio, pre-television days. The COVID-19 experience, says Markel, has shown the importance of using modern communication platforms to get good information out and counteract misinformation that has been rampant, and studying how people get and decide to act on information about health threats.

No matter what pandemic disease emerges next, learning lessons from the COVID-19 experience and not succumbing to the “global amnesia” that has happened after previous pandemics, will be critical, says Markel.

“As humans, we don’t want to think about scary, terrible things,” he said. “But we need to stick together for the greater good, and have faith in medicine, science and public hea lth. That’s the only way we’re getting out of this pandemic, and the ones that are coming.”

Howard Markel

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

Ongoing lessons from a long pandemic

What COVID-19 has taught—and continues to teach—us two years in.

FOR ALMOST TWO YEARS, the coronavirus has battered the world, with millions of deaths and hundreds of millions of cases. This winter’s omicron variant surge is just the latest example of the pandemic’s unpredictable trajectory. It has resulted in personal tragedy for many. It has left survivors with long-COVID-19 symptoms, and it has overwhelmed health care systems and caused burnout among health workers. It has changed our behavior, acquainting people with mask wearing and social distancing. It has changed the way we work, forcing the fortunate to work remotely and resulting in furloughs or layoffs or constant risk of exposure for the less fortunate. And it has been an impetus to scientific innovation, with effective vaccines created and distributed at a historic pace.

The world is a different place from what it was two years ago, and we are still learning to live with all the sorrow and change the pandemic has brought. At the same time, COVID-19 has taught us a lot. Through the global crisis, we have reevaluated aspects of our societies and examined what is working—and what isn’t.

Here HKS faculty members and other experts examine lessons learned during the pandemic.

  • Matthew Baum and John Della Volpe: National suffering and solidarity
  • Hannah Riley Bowles: Understanding the “Shecession”
  • David Eaves: Lessons from digital government
  • Debra Iles: Executive education will never be the same
  • Anders Jensen: A time to rethink tax systems
  • Asim Khwaja: Prioritizing process to prepare for the next shock
  • Dan Levy: Thinking outside—and inside—the Zoom box

National suffering and solidarity

Matthew baum and john della volpe.

Mathew Baum and John Della Volpe

It is difficult to conceive of anything good borne of COVID-19. As of this writing, in the United States, more than 700,000 are dead; 5 million have fallen worldwide. Millions of us grieve the untimely loss of a family member, a loved one, or a friend. And while our team of researchers from the Covid States Project has charted the extreme stress, anxiety, and depression so many Americans are facing, we also have found reason for optimism. 

Partnership between the public and private sectors has spurred tremendous innovation in vaccine development and distribution logistics, which will likely prove enormously beneficial in the future, both with routine vaccines and with future pandemics. COVID-19 has also provided a rare real-time window into the workings of science, which while not universally helpful, provides valuable education for many people. Life-saving developments like these are probably why the public’s trust in science has largely remained intact while trust in other institutions has fallen since we began tracking such measures in April 2020. In a recent wave of more than 21,000 interviews across 50 states and the District of Columbia, we found that 92% of American adults trust doctors and hospitals, nearly 90% trust scientists and researchers, 78% trust the CDC, 74% trust pharmaceutical companies, and 68% trust Dr. Anthony Fauci on how best to deal with the coronavirus. Although overall levels of confidence in the scientific community remain very strong in general, evidence suggests that trust has eroded somewhat over the past 18 months and bears watching.

“While our country and many communities feel as divided as they have ever been in our lifetimes, the bonds of family (whether nuclear or chosen) are stronger.”

Matt baum and john della volpe.

Additionally, the coronavirus has provided oxygen for many of us to reevaluate priorities and life choices, including family, work, and career. The racial reckoning that followed the death of George Floyd in 2020 would most likely not have been as profound if tens of millions of American families had not been locked down, watching the gruesome news coverage, and pressured by often younger family members to confront and discuss systemic racism and the sins of America’s past that led to the murder and civil unrest. 

Today, millions of Americans, especially Millennials and Generation Z, are reconsidering what it means to be happy and live a fulfilling and purposeful life. The effects of their decisions are now recognized by economists and businesses in need of labor, but the values leading to workforce changes have been developing for more than a decade, only to be supercharged during the pandemic. While our country and many communities feel as divided as they have ever been in our lifetimes, the bonds of family (whether nuclear or chosen) are stronger. 

More than 18 months ago, Amanda Gorman offered comfort to a nation that was unaware of the inordinate loss soon headed its way. She said, in part:

We ignite not in the light, but in lack thereof, For it is in loss that we truly learn to love. In this chaos, we will discover clarity. In suffering, we must find solidarity.

As science leads us to a brighter 2022, let’s hope that through our national suffering we can once again discover what’s important, not just for ourselves but for the nation.

Matthew Baum , the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications, and John Della Volpe , director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, are among the team involved with the Covid States Project, a multi-university collaboration of researchers in a range of fields, who have examined behaviors and outcomes across the United States since March 2020.

Understanding the “Shecession”

Hannah riley bowles  .

Q: How is the intersection of race and gender at play for working mothers during the COVID-19 recovery phase?

Hannah Riley Bowles headshot.

The most detailed data we have is from a survey conducted by Women and Public Policy Program Fellow Alicia Modestino, which consisted of a national panel of 2,500 working parents between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day (May 10 to June 21) of 2020. These data, collected at the onset of the pandemic, indicated that women accounted for more than half of unemployed workers (consonant with other economic studies), with Black and Hispanic women suffering outsize job losses at 9.5% and 8.3%, respectively. This gender disparity in labor market outcomes, often dubbed the “She-cession,” reflected the disproportionate toll on female workers, who were more likely to hold in-person jobs in affected industries such as hospitality, childcare, and health care.

A distinctive strength of this survey was that it collected information on whether childcare conflicts directly contributed to job losses. In contrast, other studies could only infer why women with children were displaced from the labor market. Modestino and colleagues found that 26% of unemployed mothers reported a lack of childcare as the reason for losing their jobs, compared with 14% of unemployed fathers. Their time-use data confirm that COVID-19 made work-life balance disproportionately difficult for women, with significant increases in time spent on schoolwork and playing with children as well as cooking and cleaning. In comparison, men reported only small increases in basic household chores. Women of color were more likely to have those experiences. For example, the survey showed that 23% of Black women—versus 15% of non-Black women—reported that their hours were reduced due to a lack of childcare.

Thanks to a gift to WAPPP from the Jessica Hoffman Brennan Gender Inequality and COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Research Fund for research on the effects of the pandemic on women’s labor-market participation, Modestino and I are launching a study to explore working mothers’ experiences during the COVID-19 recovery phase from an intersectional perspective, disaggregating data by race, income, education, and other demographics. We also seek to investigate the role of negotiations in “shock resilience”—namely, how negotiating with partners, employers, coworkers, immediate and extended family members, friends, and others who make up formal and informal support systems can help women manage family and paid labor.

“With the closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, household dynamics became a significant factor in determining labor outcomes for women.”

Hannah riley bowles.

Q: How has the shock to childcare during COVID-19 varied among women with different household dynamics?

With the closure of schools during the pandemic, household dynamics became a significant factor in determining labor outcomes for women. In Modestino’s survey, women were more likely to report losses in work status if they were single, divorced, separated, or widowed (22% for not married versus 15% for married). Women living in households with annual incomes below $75,000 were also significantly more likely to report that difficulties with childcare had had an adverse effect on their labor-market participation. This effect was more acute for women with small children and those holding in-person jobs.

Q: Working mothers have been hit hard. How can policy support them?

The Modestino survey data suggest that access to paid family leave, remote-work arrangements, and childcare subsidies were the most important policies in enabling women to remain fully employed. Equally or even more important was the support of managers and coworkers—suggesting that formal policies and practices need to be backed up by family-friendly work cultures.

Access to backup childcare was another important factor that varied across communities, with lower-income families more likely to rely on family support networks. However, although 24% of working parents reported having access to paid family leave, only 4% had used it during the pandemic. Even worse, working parents who identify as Black or Hispanic are less likely to work in jobs that offer paid sick time and medical leave or to have COVID-19 policies available to them such as backup childcare subsidies and working from home.

Again, looking forward, we seek to understand what critical factors enable working mothers to recover from the pandemic, including formal and informal supports for managing work and family.

Roy E. Larsen Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Management Hannah Riley Bowles is a codirector of the Center for Public Leadership and the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP). Her research focuses on gender, negotiation, career advancement, and work-family conflict.

Lessons from digital government

David eaves.

David Eaves headshot

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital service groups and digital government experts around the world started to codify what a good digital crisis response could look like. These efforts have resulted in documents such as the  California Digital Crisis Standard , developed by the state’s COVID-19 response team. Another example comes from Ontario, where the digital service group leveraged previous work in Alberta to quickly deploy a COVID-19 self-assessment in days, helping lower call volumes to government help desks and reducing stress for citizens.

The broad takeaway is that in a crisis, tried-and-true practices become even more critical to executing digital service delivery. The experiences of California and Ontario tell us that:  

  • Working in the open enables learning In a national emergency, working in the open allows multiple service providers—within the same governing system or outside it—to learn from one another, accelerating development timelines and surfacing creative solutions. The California Digital Crisis Standard was made possible by work that was shared, while the story of Alberta and Ontario demonstrates that leveraging others’ work can radically reduce the cost and time to deploy government services.
  • There is always time for user testing While some may view user testing as a time-consuming luxury that has no place in rapid crisis response, the experiences of California and Ontario highlight the importance of prioritizing user needs. If anything, user testing is more important in a crisis, because the consequences are more serious if services do not work for users.
  • Clear communication is essential Both examples underscore the importance of communicating simply and clearly with users of digital services. Doing so can reduce panic and confusion while creating trust between users and the government agencies managing the services.  

Looking Ahead The experiences of California and Ontario don’t hold all the answers for an effective digital crisis response. No two crises are the same, and some degree of improvisation will always be necessary. But taking time to develop a framework for response—to understand how normal working processes might change or stay the same—helps mitigate the pressure teams face while handling any crisis. More important, the work that California and Ontario appeared to do “on the fly” was really the result of years of capacity building, changing policies, and acquiring the right talent to change how government works. The crisis just made the value of those new ways of working more apparent.

Digital service groups need to think proactively about how crises affect the development and deployment of digital technologies in the public realm and build a standard that draws on the elements of impactful crisis responses like those in California and Ontario.

Lecturer in Public Policy David Eaves, with coeditor Lauren Lombardo MPP 2021, produced a policy brief titled “2020 State of Digital Transformation,” with lessons from digital government service units that responded quickly and effectively to the pandemic. The excerpt above is an adaptation of material from this brief.

Executive education will never be the same

Debra Iles headshot

Only six weeks after we shuttered our offices due to the onset of COVID-19, in April 2020, HKS Executive Education brought together participants for our first pivoted online program in April 2020. Six weeks after that, we hosted our first free faculty-led webinar, which focused on helping our global community respond to the repercussions of the health crisis.

Before the pandemic, we had a few online programs. In general, though, our faculty and participants preferred being together in person and on campus. We stuck with that model because we knew it worked. We needed a crisis to embrace online learning.

And as was true for many during the pandemic, we learned a few things—fast. It turns out that online executive education can be excellent. Everyone is in the front row. The cost of travel has evaporated. Classroom diversity is enhanced. Different learning styles are welcomed, and extended program lengths allow people to test what they are learning in their jobs in real time. Deeply interactive discussions between faculty members and learners, a cornerstone of our in-person programs, came alive online.

“It turns out online executive education can be excellent. Everyone is in the front row.”

We also learned, through a difficult year, about the resilience of the Kennedy School team. The HKS faculty pulled together, building momentum and encouraging one another to move forward and revamp the curriculum for remote learning. The members of our staff rallied, expanding their skills to enable each program participant to be truly present in this new virtual world. Together, the faculty and the staff managed polls and chats, posted new video and audio materials, curated virtual study groups, and reviewed participants’ progress at every step.

Outside the classroom, we learned that many were eager to discover through our free webinars how COVID-19 was reshaping leadership, economics, and trade. We expanded what we thought was just a short-term offering to an ongoing series of faculty members sharing the latest research on racial justice, social justice, climate change, crisis, and new scholarship across the HKS spectrum. We’ve always known that the best leaders never stop learning, and thousands in our community showed up for this important content while they were facing some of the most extreme public challenges we’ve seen in decades.

Our mission has always been to bring HKS ideas and research to the broadest possible audience of senior-level leaders who are looking to apply new approaches to their work in real-time. Based on what we’ve learned this year, online learning’s expanded place in our programs is here to stay. Today we offer more than 60 online program sessions every year. And even when COVID-19 is behind us, we expect to stay 40% online.

Debra Iles is the senior associate dean for executive education at Harvard Kennedy School.

A time to rethink tax systems

Anders jensen.

Anders Jensen headshot

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to think about tax policy in an evidence-based way. It has put a lot of pressure on government budgets for unemployment benefits and other public goods, which means that the government must collect more taxes to provide them. But at the same time, the tax base has eroded owing to the various forms of lockdown that were necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19.  

Tax policies for the post-pandemic recovery period will thus require governments to be resourceful and to look at underutilized policy tools. To that end, the COVID-19 recovery phase may present a strong opportunity for a deeper overhaul of tax systems to improve efficiency and—perhaps even more important—equity.

Anders Jensen is an assistant professor of public policy who studies tax policy with a particular focus on countries’ capacity to tax.

Prioritizing process to prepare for the next shock

Asim khwaja.

Asim Khwaja headshot

The pandemic led to massive losses in many countries—of life, of livelihoods, and more.  The biggest lesson that I believe we can learn from these years of loss is that process matters. Shocks happen, and there is only so much a society can do to prepare for the worst kinds of shocks, such as COVID-19—one of the most devastating our world has experienced. 

What this specific shock revealed to me is that we didn’t have processes in place to navigate it in a way that wasn’t reactionary or destructive. We didn’t have measurement systems to figure out the extent of the problem, and we didn’t have ways to adjudicate the effectiveness of our policy responses to the problem. We were lacking the evidence we desperately needed as we designed costly policies, assuming that they would lead to a benefit instead of a huge cost. In some places around the world, policymakers overdid it, and in others, policies such as lockdowns to limit the spread of the virus, proved successful. These instances of failure or success derived more from reactionary decisions than from any evidence-based process. We could only depend on the loudest voices and a panicked desire to do something quickly in our policy responses.

“What this specific shock revealed to me is that we didn’t have processes in place to navigate the shock in a way that wasn’t reactionary or destructive.”

I hope that we have now learned how critical it is to have effective response processes in place before the challenges that we will inevitably face in the future. Doing so will allow us to have a more thoughtful, evidence-driven, and conceptually valid response, as opposed to an immediate and desperate reaction.

Asim Khwaja is the director of the Center for International Development and the Sumitomo-FASID Professor of International Finance and Development.

Thinking outside—and inside—the Zoom box

Dan levy  .

Dan Levy headshot

Q: How prepared was HKS for online learning when COVID-19 hit in March 2020?

Prior to COVID-19, the Kennedy School was already doing online learning, but it was mainly driven by a small number of faculty members and staff who strongly believed in its power to both expand reach and improve teaching and learning. There were many interesting initiatives in executive education. And there were pioneer faculty members, including Marshall Ganz and Matt Andrews. Teddy Svoronos, Pinar Dogan, I, and others were doing it as part of a blended learning approach. Then, a couple of years before the pandemic, a group of us started working on the Public Leadership Credential, which is the School’s flagship online learning initiative.

When we were forced by the pandemic to move to online learning, we were very fortunate to be able to leverage those previous efforts, and I think the School was better prepared for online learning because of them. That doesn’t mean it was easy to do, but it does mean that we had in-house expertise to help bring everyone into online teaching and learning.

Many of us had experience with asynchronous learning, whereby learners engage with online material but are not interacting live with teachers. So even some of us who had some experience had to adjust quickly to live online teaching.  I think it’s fair to say that there were growing pains. It was not easy at first, and I commend the spirit of the faculty and staff members. They looked for ways to innovate and make things work for students and were very resourceful and creative. That, to me, is one of the silver linings of the pandemic: the unleashing of creativity and resourcefulness that those involved in teaching and learning were able to bring to the enterprise.

“The pandemic has taught us to think more carefully about how to design successful learning experiences and programs for our students. We need to be better at putting ourselves in their shoes.”

Q: You wrote a book about teaching with Zoom. How did that come about?

We went to online learning at the Kennedy School in March of 2020. By mid-May, I was seeing faculty members, both here and outside the School, use Zoom in creative ways. I started documenting those examples because I wanted to learn what they were doing—and I ended up putting together a book. I felt that people needed a one-stop place to learn how to teach effectively with Zoom, since that’s the platform most people were using. I hope the book is helpful, not only to colleagues at the Kennedy School and at Harvard but more broadly.  

Q: What can we take from Zoom to the physical classroom?

Some aspects of teaching in the classroom are better—such as the magic that happens when people can engage in person. But it became clear to me that there are also some things we can do better online. Now that we’re transitioning back to in-person teaching, we can think about how to incorporate some of those advantages. The use of chat during live instruction on Zoom is an incredibly powerful tool for finding out quickly what’s on our students’ minds. As we return to classrooms, where we don’t have chat, we should think about alternative ways to get the same benefits. Another plus with teaching on Zoom is the breakout rooms, where you can put learners in groups. We’ve always done group work in classrooms, but on Zoom we experimented with having the groups use collaborative tools to document their work. Being able to better leverage group work for post-group discussions is something I hope we can bring into the physical classroom.

Q: What’s one lesson from teaching fully online during COVID-19 that you think we should not forget?

The pandemic has taught us to think more carefully about how to design successful learning experiences and programs for our students. We need to be better at putting ourselves in their shoes. That is a simple principle that should always guide teaching and learning, and it was especially evident over the past two years.

Dan Levy is a senior lecturer in public policy. He is the faculty director of the Public Leadership Credential , Harvard Kennedy School’s flagship online learning initiative, and the author of   Teaching Effectively with Zoom: A Practical Guide to Engage Your Students and Help Them Learn .

The White House is seen as a backdrop as people visit the 'In America: Remember' public art installation near the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The installation commemorates all the Americans who have died due to COVID-19. Image by Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Inline images by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, Andrei Pungovschi/Bloomberg /Getty Images, and Liu Guanguan/China News Service/Getty Images

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  • We have reached the end of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic with more problems on the horizon.
  • Covid-19 lessons can be drawn from the previous two years about how to handle future and long-standing challenges.
  • Early assumptions about future trends should be made with caution as uncertainty and unpredictability are still present.
  • Leadership has proven important across the board.

Whatever happens next in this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, we have reached the “end of the beginning.” We paused to reflect on Ipsos’ experience over the last couple of years, with the thought that it might provide lessons for the future, addressing long-standing challenges like ageing populations, a fragile planet and growing inequalities.

So, what are these lessons?

COVID-19 Lesson #1: People proved adaptable

By the end of March 2020, more than 100 countries were in a full or partial lockdown. Two years on, life has continued, but often in an altered state. The resilience and optimistic economic performance seen in many countries come with limits, though, as many admitted to picking and choosing post-lockdown rules to follow . There were also hot takes on what the “new normal” would look like. Commentators predicted that some behaviour would stick, such as accelerated online shopping, even though there were more reports of increased difficulties making online purchases than a year ago, suggesting the path to the new normal is likely more incremental than suggested.

COVID-19 Lesson #2: Mental health is as important as physical health

Through one global public health crisis, another was revealed, as many say their personal health situation worsened, experiencing mental health challenges for the first time. Levels of reported anxiety are higher than ever, with women hit hardest and young people more likely to “ languish .” Now, 79% of people worldwide say their mental health is as important as their physical health . As investment in mental health services is only a fraction of overall health spending, a more serious conversation to address this crisis is due.

Mental health is one of the top health problems

COVID-19 Lesson #3: Consumer desires are unpredictable

After initial panic buying, observers noted that the void caused by social restrictions was being filled with premium brand experiences. Enduring consumer habits are yet to become clearer, but for now, there is still uncertainty and inequality: unemployment and inflation among people’s top priorities. If we are about to go through a period of restricted purchasing power, brands may need to adjust and consider that consumer behaviour changes during a crisis, with some of those changes only later becoming permanent.

Respondents reflect on consumption habits

COVID-19 Lesson #4: Inequalities are widening

The pandemic, rather than erasing old problems, added new ones and exacerbated existing inequalities across age, gender, ethnicities and geography. One survey indicated that people believe the pandemic has been worse for older people than for younger people and research shows that the burden of childcare is falling on women disproportionately, consequently widening other aspects of the gender gap. More positively, there has been a narrowing of the “digital divide,” with older people’s increasing technology adoption to keep in touch with friends and family. Such digital acceleration and increasing home working acceptance will likely have lasting implications, including a potential reorientation of how our cities, suburbs and surrounding areas all interact.

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

COVID-19 Lesson #5: The “empty planet” scenario is now more likely

The pandemic has modified birth rates but not with the tongue-in-cheek expectation of a boom. Instead, looming uncertainty caused many to delay having children, accelerating pre-existing population decline. The empty planet scenario , or 'population bust,' expected by 2050, may come sooner. Brands and governments will need more nuanced approaches to older generations who simultaneously have more spending power and rely more on public services. Companies may also need to restructure their workforce to plug gaps created by ageing and non-replenishing manpower.

COVID-19 Lesson #6: We're getting more insular

Previous surveys have continuously shown huge disparities in outlook by country, including close neighbours, pointing to cultural considerations, differing legal systems and government points of view combining and varying people’s experiences. There is also evidence of “ de-globalisation ,” with many retreating to familiar territories and less dependence on foreign countries sought for goods and materials. Borders have become less porous during the pandemic, and there is apparent reluctance for their reopening.

Have you read?

Majority of consumers willing to pay more for goods which use scarce natural resources - ipsos survey, ending hunger and poverty are the top priorities for global public: forum, ipsos poll, confidence in covid-19 vaccines continues to rise, ipsos-forum poll shows, covid-19 lesson #7: maintaining public trust is difficult.

Doctors have become the world’s most trusted profession , while scientists took second place. Politicians and advertising executives, however, remain at the bottom of the league table in terms of public trust. “Behaving responsibly” is the key driver of such sentiment, with a greater tendency to challenge authority than before. During the pandemic, governments had a special challenge, as they've needed to quickly make decisions that impacted thousands of lives and livelihoods with limited, shifting data. The ability to set new rules and guidelines requires the trust of the public which can wear thin over the course of a multi-year crisis.

COVID-19 Lesson #8: Expectations of the state have changed

As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, people turned to governments to protect the economy and society and mobilise a healthcare response, including vaccine rollout. While they demonstrated their power, their limitations also became apparent, needing the help of international pharmaceutical companies, which have since enjoyed a boost to their image. There is some evidence for support of further strengthening of state intervention but whether that will continue once the pandemic ends or will carry to other crises like climate change is yet to be seen.

COVID-19 Lesson #9: Fear and risk are being redefined

Concerns about personal health and safety and financial and health worries created a crisis where people felt a loss of control with perceptions that governing institutions also did not have a good grasp on the pandemic. Fear and inconvenience still present serious hurdles in different areas of life, international travel being a prime example. This feeling extends across borders with more than two in three people in the US, Russia, Brazil and Germany stating : “I feel things in my country are out of control right now.” As the pandemic has moved and changed, people around the world have needed to adapt to constantly shifting contexts and weigh what risks they are and are not comfortable taking on.

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COVID-19 Lesson #10: A sustainable future requires leadership

Despite initial lower emissions at the start of the pandemic, climate concern has not diminished and there is near-consensus an environmental disaster is likely without drastic changes. The same leadership sought from the pandemic is sought in the fight against climate change, giving governments and businesses a clear mandate to act . However, according to the research, people are far from aware of how their lifestyles should adapt to save the planet, which could mean this environmental feat is the biggest leadership challenge to come.

Environmental disaster is feared by 83% of people

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The Important Life Lessons We Can Take From COVID-19

essay on important life lessons we learn from coronavirus

Mere months ago, accounts of a strange SARS-like virus began emerging from China. Fast-forward to today, and what we now know as COVID-19 has sent shockwaves around the world with the global death toll now standing at over 302,000 and the number of confirmed cases ringing in at more than 4 million.

Beyond this heartbreaking loss of life, the fallout from COVID-19 has ricocheted into all other areas of our lives. Unemployment has surged and experts are warning we’re entering a deep economic recession, we have a mental health crisis on our hands, and our regular daily routines have been disrupted beyond recognition while we’ve been forced indoors to self-isolate.

There’s no way of sugarcoating the situation around COVID-19: It has and continues to wreak devastating consequences we never dreamt possible in 2020.

At a time like this, it can be difficult to find many – or even any – positives. However, history has shown us that major catastrophes can serve as valuable catalysts for change. Besides providing possible guidelines for how we can handle future pandemics, COVID-19 has also given us further insights on the looming climate change crisis, and further brought to light the gross inequalities that exist within our societies.

While we continue to fight COVID-19, search for a vaccine, and come to grips with our ‘new normal,’ it’s important we reflect on the valuable life lessons the pandemic has taught us and keep sight of these while working towards progress.

So, when we come out the other side of this pandemic, what will we have learnt?

Here are a few thoughts…

Human life on Earth is not a given

Although the extinction of many animal species has been well documented, many of us have never considered the possibility humans could one day become extinct too. COVID-19 has forced us to examine the fragility of our own mortality.

As grim as it is to consider, it is just one of many recent reminders that we may not be immune to being wiped out. In recent years, we’ve seen the global climate crisis escalate, coming to a crescendo in Australia with extreme weather events like droughts, floods and last summer’s bushfire crisis .

Now, we’re facing a pandemic unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times and it has brought life as we knew it to a halt. The pandemic has seen countries we’ve previously seen as strong and medically advanced – such as China, Italy and the US – brought to their knees. We’ve watched in horror as makeshift morgues and mass graves have appeared to whisk away inconceivable numbers of bodies in the worst-affected nations.

Swift, globally co-ordinated action is needed to protect against universal threats

Including future pandemics

COVID-19 has shown us not all our world leaders nor the systems we’ve placed faith in are equipped to cope with major global threats like COVID-19. We already knew from the early 2000’s SARS-outbreak that better information-sharing between countries and swifter, globally co-ordinarted is one of the best lines of defence against future pandemics. Yet, we failed miserably when it came to remembering these learnings and working together.

Public health experts have argued that had we seen early, more-aggressive and globally-united responses to COVID-19 (such as synchronised lockdowns and perhaps universal financial support packages) we may have mitigated much of the social and economical carnage we’ve seen.

And, climate change

While reporting around climate change has largely been forced into the backseat lately, this looming crisis won’t wait until the pandemic is over. We urgently need to apply the same principles of globally-united action to lower our greenhouse gas emissions before it is too late. No country is insulated against the effects of global warming and we are playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette with the planet the longer we delay.

Changes in human lifestyle and behaviour can have a meaningful impact on the planet’s health

COVID-19 has highlighted the link between damaging human activity on Earth and climate change. Although we’ve seen many excited reports about the positive effect the pandemic has had on climate change (the cleaner air and recovery of wildlife has been impressive),  the International Energy Agency (IEA) has predicted 2020’s annual emissions to be down by just 6 to 8 per cent.  Frighteningly, although it seems we’ve made huge improvements, this year is still on a collision course to be the hottest ever recorded.

Further , we remain on the brink of missing the internationally agreed target set  during the Paris Agreement. Even the dramatic lockdowns and travel limits over the last few months haven’t put us on track to reduce our emissions by the agreed  7.6%  each year  to 2050  that will allow us to limit global warming to 1.5C (above pre-industrial levels).

Although terrifying, these sobering statistics show us just how drastic the changes we’ll need to make must be to make a meaningful impact in the fight against climate change.

If we can apply the same strategies of serious, speedy action, that we successfully used against the pandemic in Australia, to climate change, and look to countries like South Korea that are investing in green energy as part of their COVID-19 economic recovery plan, we’ll stand a chance.

Being cynical is dangerous (and costly)

In the United States, we saw Trump continuously spreading disinformation and reassuring Americans COVID-19 was “under control,” the US was in “great shape” and that they’d “pretty much shut [the virus] down coming in from China” all the while relying on the frighteningly misplaced hope that in April “it would disappear like a miracle” with warmer weather.

It didn’t. 

Dismissing claims the virus was serious, Trump remained bullish in his stance, refusing to lockdown the country and declaring repeatedly that America would be open for business again very soon. Meanwhile, his public health officials and many governors continued to warn that this strategy could result in a second wave of COVID-19 cases that would again overwhelm hospitals.

All the while, COVID-19 continued to spread around the United States at an alarming rate and the country quickly surpassed all others to become the hardest hit. Had the Trump administration acted faster and more aggressively to implement social distancing measures, testing and contact tracing, the United States may have had been in a far better position.

Looking to countries like Australia and Japan, it’s clear early action is the most economically sound approach. Countries that ignored the advice of health experts are now the ones paying the biggest price both in loss of life and economic devastation.

Don’t be afraid to take a sick day – it could save a life

In today’s fast-paced world, working through illness is often seen as a badge of honour. Many of us feel extraordinarily guilty for calling in sick to work and will present ourselves to the office unless we’re pretty much bedbound.

The result? We risk infecting our colleagues, which then has a greater flow-on effect on the company’s productivity than if we’d just stayed at home and kept our germs to ourselves. Plus, we not only risk sharing the virus with our co-workers but also anyone we brush shoulders with commuting to work or while stepping out for lunch. 

In the case of COVID-19, a number of ‘super-spreaders’ who kept going about their business while sick have been identified as being responsible for multiple outbreak clusters.

The lesson? If you’re sick, stay home.

Temporarily compromising your personal freedom could save a life (or many)

As Australians, we’re known for our optimistic, ‘no worries’ attitudes, and flouting the rules is often regarded as being ‘cheeky’ than seriously frowned upon. Ordinarily, this optimistic outlook is endearing but in a pandemic, it can be dangerous.

When our government began to roll out warnings around public gatherings, instead of heeding this advice with caution, record numbers of Sydney-siders flocked to Bondi Beach to enjoy the sun. After the beach was closed and further restrictions were broadcast around the nation, we started to get the idea. And, after we saw the global number of confirmed cases skyrocket what we dreamt possible, we really started to get the idea.

Let’s remember, keeping physically distanced is one of the most effective measures against infectious diseases.

Keeping physical distance doesn’t mean you need to be socially distanced

Many of us have interestingly found we’ve been  more social with friends and family than before – even making contact via phone and video chatting with people in other states or countries that we ordinarily don’t see regularly in person. Perhaps we’re making much more of an effort to catch up virtually because we’ve suddenly become fearful of being ‘socially distanced’? 

Let’s not wait for another pandemic to give ourselves reason to pick up the phone, let’s keep this contact going. Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve now taught many of our grandparents and older generations to use tools like FaceTime to implement regular face-to-face catchups from a distance.

Pandemics are not ‘great equalisers’; we have an enormous amount of work to do to ‘close the gap’

COVID-19   has been dubbed the “great equaliser” by some who’ve argued the virus’s inability to discern between race, class and socio-economic standing means it will affect all communities   equally.   But, this is not so.

It is far easier to ‘work from home’ in a white collar profession where simply all that is needed to perform one’s duties are a computer and WiFi connection and human contact can be minimised. Research conducted in the UK found men in low-skilled jobs like manual labour are four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than men in professional occupations. Meanwhile, women working as carers are twice as likely to die as their counterparts in professional and technical roles.

The pandemic has laid bare the inequalities that exist in our society, hitting those from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds the hardest. We have intensive work to do to close the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’

Isobel is a contributor to marie claire Australia. She's completely obsessed with skincare and when she's not hunting for the latest news, you’ll find her arranging her product collection in search of the perfect “shelfie.”

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Sharing lessons learned from covid-19 vaccine introductions -a global community forum for countries.

Jenny A. Walldorf

  • 1 World Health Organization (Switzerland), Geneva, Switzerland
  • 2 ECHO Institute, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, United States

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To optimize the efficient introduction and deployment of COVID-19 vaccines across the globe during the COVID-19 pandemic, in April 2021 WHO launched a new process and tools for countries to rapidly review the early phase of countries' COVID-19 vaccine introduction. This methodology is called the COVID-19 vaccination intra-action review, also known as mini COVID-19 vaccine postintroduction evaluation (mini-cPIE). As of November 2022, 46 mini-cPIEs had been conducted. In collaboration with Project ECHO, WHO convened and facilitated real-time experience sharing and peer-learning among countries following their mini-cPIEs through a virtual global real-time learning forum. This five-session clinic series was attended by 736 participants from 129 countries. Based on post-session feedback surveys, when asked about the utility of the sessions, half of the participants said they would review national guidelines and protocols or make other changes to their health systems. The post-series survey sent following the end of the clinic series showed that at least eight countries subsequently conducted a mini-cPIE after participating in the clinics, and participants from at least nine countries indicated the experience shared by peer countries on the clinic largely benefited their COVID-19 vaccine introduction and deployment. In this article, we highlight the benefits and importance of creating a global experience-sharing forum for countries to connect and share pertinent learnings in real-time during an international public health emergency. Moving forward, it is critical to foster a culture of individual and collective learning within and between countries during public health emergencies, with WHO playing an important convening role.

Keywords: Immunization, COVID-19, Emergencies, Program Evaluation, community of practice

Received: 24 Jan 2024; Accepted: 04 Apr 2024.

Copyright: © 2024 Walldorf, Chiu de Vazquez, Barbosa De Lima, Struminger, Groom, Burke, Mayigane, Chang Blanc and Vedrasco. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Jenny A. Walldorf, World Health Organization (Switzerland), Geneva, Switzerland

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic

Reinhard busse.

a Head, Department Health Care Management, Technical University of Berlin; Co-director, European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies

Natasha Azzopardi Muscat

b Director, Country Health Policies and Systems, WHO Regional Office for Europe

Isabel de la Mata

c Principal Advisor for Health and Crisis Management, European Commission

Josep Figueras

d Director, European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies

It is with great pleasure and satisfaction that we lend our support to the collection of papers in this Special Issue of Health Policy which draws on the body of evidence gathered in the COVID-19 Health Systems Response Monitor (HSRM) and its network of international experts. The HSRM is a joint undertaking of the WHO Regional Office for Europe, the European Commission, and the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies. The richness of the papers lies in the fact that they aim to identify important lessons from the COVID-19 response across five main health system dimensions (preventing transmission; providing health services effectively; ensuring sufficient infrastructure and workforce capacity; paying for services; and governance) as well as through dedicated cross-country comparisons covering all European Union and a large portion of WHO European Region Member States as well as Canada and the United States.

This body of work could not have been possible without the hard work and commitment of all the COVID-19 HSRM network members. This Special Issue builds on and complements an ever growing range of network outputs, including the HSRM Monitor platform itself as well as policy briefs and snapshots, a major study on health system resilience, three issues of Eurohealth and a series of webinars, to name a few. And while the academic papers published here are aimed at the research community, the analyses are essentially powered by the conviction to be as policy-relevant as possible for the wider constituencies of policy advisors and senior government officials, who will undoubtedly find valuable information to add to their arsenal of policy tools to meet the forthcoming challenges that await our health systems.

For this reason, our gratitude to the institutions and individuals who make up the HSRM, to the journal Health Policy , to the editors of this Special Issue and to all of the contributing authors is redoubled. The varied evidence and analyses contained here are not only important for the valuable lessons learned but also as concrete contributions to the efforts now underway to rebuild and strengthen our health systems as we emerge and recover from the pandemic. While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a severe health system shock it is by no means an isolated one. Previous shocks such as the global financial crisis and potential new ones around the corner, like the Ukrainian refugee crisis, all serve to highlight how the resilience of health systems may be tested, often to limits that are difficult to bounce back from. The COVID-19 pandemic uncovered a number of well-known chronic vulnerabilities and deficiencies in our health systems that need to be addressed. In terms of its policy legacy, this crisis provides a window of opportunity to examine and learn which actions can contribute to stronger, better performing health systems. A good overview and some key messages for resilience and recovery can be found in the European Commission co-funded project ‘State of health in the EU’, with its 29 Country health profiles and Companion report published in December 2021. Let's not forget that the last stage of a shock cycle is ‘recovery and learning’, but this is not a one way street; rather the feedback loop between the two are what makes the pandemic a powerful agent of transformative change.

Looking to the future we'd like to offer two final considerations that could provide some guidance on forging necessary change. Firstly, as the lessons emerging from this Special Issue make clear, the emphasis now should be on transformation and implementation. Many of the examples of best practices and innovations collected here are not new in themselves. What is new is the newfound capacity to govern, and transform health systems to implement reforms in key areas such as primary health care, financing, the health workforce or digital health. In other words, key areas of focus now should be on how to harness innovations and rethink their implementation.

Secondly, we should always remain mindful that viruses are not the only things that cross borders – effectively countering many other potential threats to health and health systems, be they economic, environmental, social or epidemiological, requires European and/or international co-operation. The public good that results from such co-operation may require some pooling of national decision-making in policy-making in order to tackle common threats, but as demonstrated by the co-operation in producing and purchasing effective vaccines, the pay-offs can be enormous. Let us all strive to learn from the pandemic and strengthen our health systems to be more resilient to future health system shocks.


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