The Fourth Anniversary of the Covid Pandemic

The Fourth Anniversary of the Covid Pandemic

Four years ago today, society began to shut down.

Shortly after noon Eastern on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared Covid — or “the coronavirus,” then the more popular term — to be a global pandemic. Stocks plummeted in the afternoon. In the span of a single hour that night, President Donald Trump delivered an Oval Office address about Covid, Tom Hanks posted on Instagram that he had the virus and the N.B.A. announced it had canceled the rest of its season.

It was a Wednesday, and thousands of schools would shut by the end of the week. Workplaces closed, too. People washed their hands frequently and touched elbows instead of shaking hands (although the C.D.C. continued to discourage widespread mask wearing for several more weeks).

The worst pandemic in a century had begun.

Today, on the unofficial fourth anniversary, I’ll update you on where things stand.

Covid’s confirmed death toll — more than seven million people worldwide — is horrific on its own, and the true toll is much worse. The Economist magazine keeps a running estimate of excess deaths, defined as the number of deaths above what was expected from pre-Covid trends. The global total is approaching 30 million.

This number includes both confirmed Covid deaths and undiagnosed ones, which have been common in poorer countries. It includes deaths caused by pandemic disruptions, such as missed doctor appointments that might have prevented other diseases. The isolation of the pandemic also caused a surge of social ills in the U.S., including increases in deaths from alcohol, drugs, vehicle crashes and murders.

Globally, Covid ranks among the worst killers since 1900. AIDS, for example, is estimated to have killed about 40 million people, but over a half century rather than only four years. The 1918 flu killed somewhere between 20 million and 50 million people.

Among high-income countries, the U.S. has had one of the highest Covid tolls. The excess-death rate here, as a study by Jennifer Nuzzo and Jorge Ledesma of Brown University notes, has been much higher than in Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, South Korea or Australia.

In addition to deaths from the virus, long Covid — which scientists still don’t understand — has afflicted many people.

The U.S. has fared so poorly for multiple reasons. Our medical system is scattered and uniquely expensive. Covid tests were hard to find here. And the U.S. failed to protect many residents of nursing homes, who were vulnerable because of the extreme age skew of Covid’s effects.

The biggest problem for the past three years, however, has involved vaccines.

Initially, many lower-income Americans, as well as Black and Latino Americans, couldn’t easily find vaccines. The Biden administration largely solved these access gaps in 2021. But a new problem then emerged: Many Americans, especially political conservatives, were skeptical of the vaccines despite overwhelming evidence of their effectiveness.

To this day, more than 30 percent of self-identified Republicans have not received a Covid vaccine shot, compared with less than 10 percent of Democrats. You can see the tragic effects of vaccine skepticism in this chart, by my colleague Ashley Wu, which compares the death rates in red and blue counties:

The chart tells two important stories. First, note that before vaccines were available, the cumulative death toll was similar in red and blue America. Although blue America wore masks more often, closed schools for longer and stayed home more, those measures turned out to be less successful than many liberals believed.

Why? Masks do work. But mask mandates tend to make little difference over extended periods. People simply won’t wear masks all the time in public for months on end. Remember the absurdity of restaurant diners wearing masks while walking to their table — and then taking them off to eat?

While many liberals exaggerated the value of pandemic restrictions, they were right about the vaccines. After vaccines became available, a huge partisan gap in Covid deaths opened. Even today, when most Americans have had the virus and have some natural immunity as a result, unvaccinated people are at much more risk.

Consider that about 95 percent of recent Covid-related hospitalizations in the U.S. have occurred among people who had not received an updated vaccine. This chart, based on data from Washington State, helps show the protective power of vaccines, especially for the elderly:

For many young Americans, Covid’s biggest toll has come from the indirect costs.

Human beings are social creatures, and the pandemic’s disruption and isolation created problems from which we still have not recovered. Some of the ills I mentioned above — such as vehicle deaths and murders — have fallen from their Covid highs but remain above their prepandemic levels.

Among the biggest costs has been learning loss. Students have begun to recover some of the pandemic losses from long school closures but have a long way to go in most states:

Four years ago, our world changed. As a society, we are not close to fully recovered.

Our advice: If you’re older and haven’t recently gotten a vaccine shot, I hope you’ll consider getting one. And here’s a Times guide to treating Covid if you get it. It remains a serious illness today, akin to a more severe version of the flu.

Related: In the last four years, scientists have unraveled some of the biggest mysteries about Covid. Read how it spreads and what’s behind the strange symptoms.

  • Public tensions between President Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu escalated over the weekend.

  • Biden, in an MSNBC interview, said Netanyahu was “hurting Israel more than helping Israel.” Netanyahu dismissed Biden’s assertions as “wrong” in a Politico interview.

  • Some Palestinian Muslims fear that Israel might impose additional restrictions during Ramadan on access to Al Aqsa Mosque, part of an area that is sacred for both Muslims and Jews.

  • Ukraine could deploy F-16 warplanes as soon as July. Despite NATO promises, delivering the jets and training pilots has been difficult.

  • Kensington Palace released a photo of Kate, Princess of Wales, to dispel rumors about her well-being. But news agencies said the image had been manipulated, and some noticed that she does not appear to be wearing her wedding ring.

  • In Haiti, gangs have attacked state institutions and expanded their territory. Food, water and fuel are limited.

  • Indonesia will investigate how two pilots fell asleep during a flight. The plane briefly went off course.

  • Grieving families have been challenging the use of “overdose” to record drug fatalities, which they believe blames victims for their death.

  • A woman was struck by a subway train in Manhattan and had both feet amputated after her boyfriend shoved her onto the tracks, the police said.

  • The leaders of Hacienda, a prominent New York sex club, preach a gospel of continuous consent. Former members say the group didn’t keep them safe when things went wrong.

For five decades, atomic veterans were forbidden to tell anyone about their experiences, including with nuclear tests. Ariel Kaminer shares her uncle’s story.

As a doctor, Daniela Lamas doesn’t fear Covid as she once did. But she carries its grave lessons forward.

Bret Stephens and Gail Collins discuss the State of the Union.

Here are columns by David French on why Nikki Haley supporters should vote for Biden and Ezra Klein on Biden’s successful State of the Union address.

A Word Through The Times: Celestial bodies have “influence.” So do advertisers and a TikTok personality known as Pookie.

Metropolitan Diary: New Haven pizza, delivered by train.

Lives Lived: Paolo Taviani, who with his brother Vittorio made some of Italy’s most acclaimed films of the last half century, mixed neorealism with a lyrical, almost magical sense of storytelling. He died at 92.

N.F.L. deals: Former Seahawks and Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson plans to sign with the Steelers, and Baker Mayfield agreed to a three-year, $100 million contract extension to remain with the Buccaneers.

Women’s college basketball: South Carolina won the S.E.C. tournament championship over L.S.U. The game had a brawl in the fourth quarter.

And the award goes to: Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” took home seven Oscars at last night’s awards, including best picture. Nolan won best director for the movie and Cillian Murphy was named best actor for his performance as the title character.

The best actress award went to Emma Stone for “Poor Things.” Lily Gladstone of “Killers of the Flower Moon” was considered a strong contender for the prize. “Lily, I share this with you,” Stone said onstage.

(“Barbie” won one award — best original song — of the eight it was nominated for.)

See the full list of winners.

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