We've learned a lot (that we didn't want to know) about life during a global pandemic. Mark Earnest examines how a society enshrined one generation's learning so that it became durable for future generations to draw upon. A century later we consider: How long does a society retain the lessons we learn?
Editor’s Note: How will 2020 go down in history? In the Hindsight 20/20 project from The Colorado Magazine, twenty of today's most insightful historians and thought leaders imagine themselves in 2120, looking back on 2020 and sharing their visions of how that year will stand the test of time.
On a spring morning in 1906, an earthquake leveled San Francisco. One violent moment claimed 3,000 lives and rendered half the population homeless. And yet, the Great Quake would become a disaster without an encore. While earthquakes regularly recurred, devastation did not. The lessons of that grim morning weren’t left to the vagaries of human habit and memory; they were enshrined in concrete, steel, and building codes. The city rose from the rubble and built a bulwark against a threat that would always be with them—saving countless lives and billions of dollars.
The same cannot be said of the Spanish flu. A dozen years later, as influenza swept through San Francisco, the city that pioneered a public response to earthquakes dissolved into factions, squabbling over individual freedom and public health measures. Ultimately, the pandemic would claim hundreds more lives than the quake; and yet, a century later, the city would be no better prepared for the next pandemic than it was in 1918. The same was true for the nation. Any lessons learned from the loss of nearly 700,000 Americans to influenza was lost to time.
One key difference between the two responses was human knowledge. The link between earthquakes and building safety was easily understood in 1906, while the cause of the Spanish flu was unknown and the value of mitigation strategies unclear. There were no such excuses in 2020 when SARS Co-V 2 arrived on America’s shores—germ theory was well understood and the coronavirus was quickly identified. But, like San Francisco in 1906, the threat seemed theoretical and the nation was unprepared.
As the pandemic and political chaos of 2020 passed, Americans embraced the lessons of Covid-19. We rejoined the international community and led the way in developing a robust global pandemic surveillance and response program with the goal of rapid containment. Nations developed plans to ensure that communities and regions affected by an emerging pandemic could isolate themselves and shut down rapidly with the assurance that they would be supported economically. The International Monetary Fund ensured that developing nations could do the same.
Individual habits, like regular hand-washing and wearing a mask with the onset of respiratory symptoms, became more common but required continual reinforcement. Collective responses proved more durable. Building codes addressing indoor air quality evolved rapidly, dramatically reducing the annual death rate from common respiratory infections like influenza while steeling the country against future outbreaks. The techniques and policy innovations enabling rapid vaccine development and deployment that were pioneered in 2020 became the norm. The success of the Covid vaccination campaign, coupled with reforms that reduced the dissemination of misinformation on social media, pushed the anti-vaccine movement far to the fringes. The era of hyper-individualism ended in 2020. Poverty plummeted. The economy became more equitable. Life expectancy began to rise across all demographic sectors. America rediscovered and reaffirmed one of its core founding principles: Our strength is our union.
Barns aren’t raised and pandemics aren’t crushed by individuals. It takes communities.
More from the Hindsight 20/20 project in The Colorado Magazine
Burning Truth: The Beginning of the End for Colorado's ForestsIn 2020, three Colorado wildfires consumed a combined total of more than half a million acres—dwarfing what had previously been the state’s most destructive fire seasons. It should have been an alarm heard throughout the West, even worldwide. The lessons were right there to be learned. And yet . . .
A Pivotal—and Long Overdue—Moment for ChangeThe year 2020 was not unprecedented. Rather, it was a stark reminder that racism and classism had for too long gone unresolved. It was a time for action. The youth of 2020 went on to become the chroniclers of their era—and the leaders of the next generation of resistance to the inequities the pandemic had exposed.
The Past is PresentEvery generation sees itself at the center of history, and Americans in 2020 were no different. But as time passed, many were disappointed to realize that change was less profound than they had hoped. Still, it might have been comforting to learn that they were part of a much longer effort to define their nation.