How to think about the future? This is a question I’m struggling with during the pandemic.
The future seems on hold. While logic tells us that there will be a vaccine and the Covid-19 pandemic will end, it doesn’t feel that way right now. With each passing month, I understand the impact of this pandemic in a different way. In March, I thought that we would all stay home for a few months and the economic impact would be manageable. I got out the board games and we sort of acted like we do when a big snowstorm passes through – hunker down, ride it out.
By June, I thought we just needed to get through the summer. The virus would calm down, some speculated that the schools would not re-open in the fall, but that seemed unlikely. Businesses began to reopen, but the unemployment rate in the US continued to rise. Then the coronavirus cases began to rise as well.
Now it is the beginning of August. The virus is not under control in U.S. or in Mexico. Too many people have ignored public health rules about social distancing and mask wearing or not followed quarantine requirements as instructed. Others continue to work without proper protection because they have no option. We have become tolerant of the new death tolls. The U.S. is now over 150,000 and projections are made about when the toll will hit 200,000 soon, a number that seemed outrageous in March. Mexico reports 48,000 dead.
Amidst so much uncertainty about the future, I keep thinking about what we know. We know that until there is a vaccine, or better public health controls on human activity, the death toll will continue to rise. We know that the impact of the virus is higher on the poor and that in the US, poverty and race walk together.
We know that when we come out at the other end of Covid-19, those who have suffered most will be those who were already the most vulnerable in our societies. According to the UN’s regional economic analysis body, ECLAC, the number of people living in poverty will increase by 45.4 million. This is truly sad as the region had made impressive strides in reducing poverty and inequality over the past two decades. In Mexico, the poverty rate is expected to increase by 7.6% in one year. The Urban Institute, which does economic and policy analysis in the U.S., estimates that the poverty rate in 2020 will vary between 8.9% and 11.9%, depending on whether or not Congress approves pending economic supports.
I now understand that our lives will not change, or should not change, until there is a vaccine and likely for a good while after that. While back in March health officials told us that, I couldn’t hear it.
It is hard to think about the future right now, but as individuals and nations, we need to respond to what we know. People around us are both dying and sliding into poverty at alarming rates. We know that those out of work need support. We know that recovery will take a long time. We know that we can slow the impact of this virus if we act responsibly wearing masks, social distancing and listening to public health officials.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson