Once sold as the reason for temporary measures to “flatten the curve,” the COVID-19 crisis has now dominated our lives for more than a year. The deadliest global pandemic in a century was sure to arrest our attention. But who would have thought last spring that when 2021 was well underway, public officials would still be dictating who we can gather with, keeping schools closed, subjecting healthy teenagers to weekly testing and making toddlers mask up?
Perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned is that pandemic policies are not immune to politics. The initial unifying moment — “we’re all in this together” — did not last long. With politicians at the helm, the scientific understanding of the coronavirus and decisions about how best to mitigate its harms became political questions, and partisans ran to their familiar corners. Too many people, in service to their party, overestimated or underestimated the risk presented by COVID-19.
More specific to Michigan, we learned the ramifications of keeping outdated and poorly written laws on the books. Only a handful of legal experts were familiar with the 75-year-old law that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used to maintain unilateral control over nearly all aspects of Michigan society for nearly seven months. The law hadn’t been used in 50 years, but its broad language could be read to grant governors virtually unlimited powers, a significant challenge to the separation-of-powers doctrine inherent in American governance.
Related, but not unique to Michigan, we also learned that in the face of an emergency, politicians found no use for a preplanned response. Nearly all states and countries around the world threw their established pandemic plans out the window and simply made up new policies on the fly. We were told these actions were based on “the science.” But it was a different science, because official pandemic plans had not included things like lockdowns and prolonged school closings.
Speaking of school closings, the COVID-19 pandemic provided a rude awakening to anyone who thought teachers unions were primarily interested in what was best for children. It became quite clear after a few months that children faced little risk of sickness or death from COVID-19 and that schools were not drivers of transmission. But teachers unions led the charge to keep schools closed for the last several months of one school year and the better part of a second. The closings have harmed the lives of countless children, especially those from low-income households. The full damage won’t be known for years, but it could prove irreparable.
To avoid ending on a sour note, let’s not forget the miracle of developing effective vaccines in record time: It may go down as one of the most important feats in the history of biomedicine. It could pave the path to even faster responses to future pandemics and potentially contribute to our ability to minimize the harms of other illnesses, too. With these technological advancements, we may be able to yet again hope for a healthier future.