The post-pandemic era is in sight. Restaurants are reopening. Sports venues are operating at full capacity. State of emergency declarations are expiring. Vaccination is slowly but surely reversing many of the abnormalities of pandemic life, but the rush to return to normal is already leaving millions of the most vulnerable Americans behind, many of whom are children, and working families.
All of this misery did not simply disappear the moment the FDA signed off on a vaccine. Nor will it be over when vaccination numbers reach a particular threshold. And when examining the lasting damage wrought by COVID-19, as the Kaiser Health Network did, it quickly becomes clear that the burden of COVID is still felt keenly by families and kids.
46,000 Kids Have Lost Parents
A new and particularly sympathetic class of people getting totally screwed over in the COVID-19 “recovery” are the estimated 46,000 children who lost one or both parents to the disease. The loss of a parent in childhood is associated with negative outcomes like substance use, lower employment, lower college attendance, and early death, but adequate mental health support can help avoid them.
NBC News reports that grief therapists and grief groups were hard to access during the pandemic. Thousands of survivors, tens of thousands of whom are children, have been left to cope with this particularly devastating form of trauma alone.
The financial hit of losing a parent is also hard and not just because two-income households suddenly become one-income households. Kids lose insurance that their now-deceased parent had through their job. And many are also unaware that they’re eligible for Social Security survivor benefits—because the onus is on the grieving family and not the government to make sure that money gets to where it belongs.
Life Expectancy Has Fallen At a Rate Not Seen Since World War II
COVID-19 has killed more than 600,000 Americans and left 3.4 million with persistent symptoms. Between March 1, 2020 and January 1, 2021, 522,368 more Americans died than would have been expected before the pandemic, a whopping 22.9 percent increase in death. Deaths directly caused by COVID-19 are a big part of this spike as were those indirectly caused by the changes brought on by the pandemic.
Fatal drug overdoses spiked 30 percent between October 2019 and October 2020, an effect of the isolation and stress brought on by the pandemic. Heart attacks and strokes also increased after 40 percent of Americans delayed medical treatment in the early days of the pandemic, and when hospitals were completely overwhelmed.
Life expectancy fell for all Americans by two years between 2018 and 2020, the largest such fall since thousands were dying in World War II. For white Americans, the drop was 1.36 years; less than half of the 3.25 and 3.88 year declines for black and Hispanic Americans respectively.
Poverty, and Inequality, Has Grown in the Pandemic
Black and Hispanic workers won’t return to their pre-pandemic employment and salary levels until 2024 according to an analysis from McKinsey & Co. The least educated and lowest-paid workers—again, a group that is disproportionately not white—will likely have to wait even longer.
The poverty rate jumped from 10.7 percent in January of 2020 to 11.3 percent today. Twenty million Americans reported trouble putting food on the table, a sign that food insecurity and its associated ills—diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, depression, anxiety, and other chronic diseases—are also going to rise.
The expiration of the federal eviction moratorium at the end of June, which will plunge hundreds of thousands of struggling Americans into homelessness, will similarly lead to even more of the mental and physical health problems that evictions have been shown to cause, including higher rates of sexual assault, lead poisoning, suicide, and addiction.
Expanded federal unemployment benefits, a lifeline that saved many people from abject poverty, are due to end on September 30. And in 25 states with Republican governors, they’re already over, an effort to force people back into jobs that pay poverty wages.
That the richest one percent of Americans live an average of 15 years longer than the poorest one percent is also worrying. The pandemic made a few people much richer, but it made many more people much poorer, exposing them to all of the indignities and health problems that come with being poor in the United States, a country with a pathetic and deteriorating excuse for a social safety net and many structural barriers—unlimited, untraceable money in politics and counter-majoritarian institutions—to strengthening it.
Pandemic Related Job Losses Have Many Without Work
Pandemic-related job losses were felt most acutely by women, who lost 12.2 million jobs from February 2020 to April 2020 according to the National Women’s Law Center. As of February of this year, they’re still 5.1 million jobs behind where they were one year prior. These continued struggles, which are worse than the job losses men have experienced, are due in large part to the shuttering of childcare facilities due to COVID-19. Nearly half of childcare facilities closed permanently during the pandemic. That’s preventing many women from returning to the workforce, excluding them from the economic recovery. Total women’s labor participation has plummeted to 57 percent, the lowest since 1988. As the NWLC puts it, “women have lost a generation of labor force participation gains.”
We Need to Do More to Help Families And Kids — But Where’s the Help?
The sudden and violent disruption of the pandemic to Americans’ lives made policies like stimulus payments, unemployment insurance, and an eviction moratorium that would have normally been non-starters among Republicans and centrist Democrats into laws. But the eagerness to “return to normal” is ending these interventions well before they’ve outlived their usefulness. People will still be evicted before they have their feet under them; people are still struggling to find work or child care so they can return to work; people are still experiencing high levels of hunger.
The reality is that returning to normal isn’t good enough for families and kids that were already teetering on the edge before the pandemic, and need help more than ever.
Policymakers now have a choice. They can use the rise in vaccination numbers as an excuse to pull back on the good things the government is doing for people before the pandemic. Or they can use the positive effects of these actions and the ongoing, lasting damage of the pandemic as reasons to do even more, to make a post-pandemic society that is healthier and fairer than what came before, for kids and families everywhere.