Home Lasting Impacts Analysis: Dig into the pandemic’s lasting impacts and you’ll find recurring themes...

Analysis: Dig into the pandemic’s lasting impacts and you’ll find recurring themes — including a disturbing drift back to “normal”

Photo by Robert Chappell

In March 2020, as you undoubtedly remember, schools added two days to their Spring Break plans to “disinfect.” Then Governor Tony Evers announced all schools would be closed for two weeks. The University of Wisconsin announced that it would move classes to “alternate delivery” – that is, virtual – for about three weeks. Summerfest was postponed by one month. 

It was a frightening time, but we knew the crisis would pass quickly.

It didn’t.

The pandemic – which still isn’t over, by the way – forced governments, systems, institutions and individuals to fundamentally change the way they operate. Forced us all, in fact, to rethink priorities, to work differently, to learn differently.

Over the past year, we’ve been looking into those changes. More specifically, we’ve been digging into what changed due to the pandemic – if anything – and will remain changed. 

We’ve spoken with dozens of people in health care, the arts, the nonprofit sector, politics and more. Some said not that much has changed actually; some said the pandemic just highlighted problems that already existed; one person even said society will change as much due to the pandemic as it did due to the Second World War.

We’ve dug into a number of topics and found some surprising things. We’ve also found a few recurring themes, which we’ll go through here. 

Voters stand in line to vote on April 7, 2020. Photo by Robert Chappell.

The pandemic accelerated or highlighted issues that already existed. With very few exceptions, the pandemic either caused existing trends to kick into high gear – a steady increase in overdose deaths since 2015 “skyrocketed” in 2020 and 2021. Political polarization was already deepening through the Trump administration when the crisis of the pandemic pushed our political systems to the breaking point. The “gig economy” already had people rethinking their relationship with work when the pandemic lost entire sectors of workers their jobs and sent other sectors of workers into their home offices.

It’s actually pretty easy to help people. We’ve known for decades that rural areas lack broadband internet access. But we never really did anything about it, until schools and businesses had to work remotely. Then, suddenly, local governments figured out a way to get wifi to everybody.

The same could be said for feeding kids at school. With kids stuck at home and schools struggling to operate in new ways, the federal government simply decided to simplify the “free and reduced cost lunch” situation and make lunch free for everybody – including when schools returned to meeting in person. It seems to have been relatively seamless – yes, many school districts started this year with significant challenges in the kitchen, but those were related to staffing and supply chain, not who’s paying the bill – and not even all that expensive. Arguments against continuing revolve around who “deserves” a free lunch and whether feeding kids will make them complacent – typical disdain for the poor, not fiscal responsibility.

We saw this theme outside of government, too, primarily in the nonprofit sector. When society and the economy ground to a halt that spring, many in the nonprofit world recognized the immediacy of the need to get money working for people. Some leveraged the age-old practice of mutual aid and gave people the opportunity to help each other. Larger institutions recognized that reasonable-seeming procedures – namely, onerous application and reporting requirements – were actually barriers to funding and, it turns out, simply unnecessary. Foundations that stripped away most application requirements and changed or simplified reporting processes reported much faster and greater impact from their philanthropic dollars.

The pandemic is inextricably linked to the Black Lives Matter movement. Repeatedly we heard that the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement would not have happened without the pandemic bringing the world to a halt. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers was, in itself, little different from similar incidents over the years. But the entire society paid attention to it, sat with it, felt the pain of it, because we had time to. We live in an attention economy, after all, and the issue of racial disparity needed some of that attention – and finally got it.

This played out in a number of ways, of course. A movement to defund police – or at least reallocate resources to better support communities rather than police them – led to some radical changes. Police were removed from Madison schools, for example. 

It took less splashy forms, too, that were no less radical, in their own ways. Many government agencies and private businesses created diversity, equity and inclusion departments and hired people to lead them. (Some did this very clumsily, of course.) The field of DEI, still relatively small, holds director- and VP-level offices in many of the state’s largest corporations and institutions. This new class of professionals isn’t just focused on Black lives and their interactions with law enforcement, but rather creating affirming environments where all marginalized people can achieve their full potential.

The focus on racial equity permeated every facet of our collective lives: our work, the arts, our politics

Virtual meetings are pretty great, actually. Yes, we all have Zoom fatigue now. But being forced to use technology to connect remotely – using technology that had existed for years, by the way – opened up whole new ways of thinking about human connection.

Loud “‘N’ Unchained Black Theater Festival participants included (L-r) Shaniqua Nikko Murphy, Quanda Johnson, Theola Carter, and T.S. Banks

Virtual performances – artists using technology to bring their work to new audiences and new spaces – went from underground fringe to mainstream. Virtual court appearances save the state money and virtual visits from jail or prison actually improve the experience of people in the carceral system. Virtual political events allow candidates and campaigns to reach targeted groups of voters without breaking the bank.

And, of course, there’s the workplace. In many sectors of the “knowledge economy” workers now have a significant advantage: they’ve proven the ability to be productive wherever they are.

Old habits die hard. As we’ve approached the end of the yearlong series, we’ve heard on trend that wasn’t present early on: things are drifting back to the way they were.

Theater companies, for example, pushed hard to perform work by Black and brown playwrights; now, though, there’s a real effort to get “back to the canon.” And that funding that was easy to come by early in the pandemic? The red tape seems to be growing up around it again. 

Ever since those early days, those first few weeks when we thought it’d all be over soon, we’ve been in a hurry to “get back to normal.” But in one of our Lasting Impacts Town Hall meetings, Brown County United Way CEO Robyn Davis said something very important: “I have really been challenging folks. What do you mean by that? What does normal mean? Because if we go back to two years ago, it wasn’t that great for a lot of people in our communities. And if you’re saying we need to return to that, I’m challenging you on that.”

Perhaps that’s our biggest single takeaway from this entire project. Things changed. Entire systems fundamentally altered their core philosophies and modes of operation to accommodate a crisis and keep people afloat. And even though it doesn’t feel like a crisis anymore, some of those folks are still drowning – and it’s far too easy to go back to our old ways of ignoring them, of tossing lifelines just out of reach, of only rescuing those we deem worthy. The pandemic showed us we can do better; it’s up to us do decide whether we will.

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