Already, COVID-19 has killed more people than World War I and Vietnam — combined.
Coronavirus has pushed the unemployment rate to levels not seen since the Great Depression.
A national poll shows historic levels of unhappiness.
Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s little question that the virus many of us hadn’t even heard of in January has upended American life, but just how bad is the damage? A half-dozen experts had a wide range of answers, with several saying that COVID-19 is in the same league as national crises such as the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the Great Depression of the 1930s, World War II, polio, the Vietnam War and the oil shortages of the 1970s.
Chicago historian Rich Lindberg went further, saying that COVID-19 might be a more severe crisis than World War II, when at least the country was united and the struggle was infused with meaning.
Partisan division is at perhaps its the highest level since the Civil War, he said, with extremism on both sides, a lack of faith in public institutions and a looming sense of dread.
“We have the attitude, ‘What’s next?’” said Lindberg, the author of 20 books about Chicago.
“Instead of saying everything’s going to settle down and be good and quiet and back to normal, we say, ‘What’s next?’ because there’s a feeling that something new and horrible — that might even be worse than what we’ve seen — may be coming down the road.”
At the other end of the spectrum is DePaul University history professor Tom Mockaitis, who says COVID-19 has not risen to the level of a top-tier national crisis.
“It’s nowhere near as bad,” Mockaitis said. “It doesn’t even come close, so far, to the pandemic of 1918-1919. It’s not even within waving distance of World War II.”
About 190,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S., compared with 405,000 American service members who died in World War II and 675,000 Americans who died in the Spanish flu epidemic — 195,000 in October 1918 alone.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, up to 25% of Americans were out of work, and at first there was no unemployment insurance.
Unemployment spiked to 15% in April of this year, a level not seen since the Great Depression. In August it was at 8%, comparable to rates seen after the financial crisis of 2008.
But COVID-19 presents some unique challenges. While political division was a major feature of the Vietnam War, historians struggled to name another crisis in which the central problem — as described by government experts — was dismissed as a hoax by a broad segment of the electorate.
The country is profoundly divided, with conservatives saying liberal cities are dissolving into violence and chaos.
Meanwhile, wildfires burn out of control in California, and parents struggle to balance full-time jobs and the in-home education of their children.
“The pandemic crisis is arguably worse (than previous crises) because of the context of so many overlapping crises unfolding at the same time,” said Michael Sherry, a professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University.
One measure of how severely COVID-19 is affecting us is found in opinion polls. In June, a survey from NORC at the University of Chicago found happiness has dipped to its lowest level in five decades. Just 14% of Americans said they were very happy, down from 31% in 2018.
A Gallup Poll conducted over 12 years has found an unprecedented increase in worry and stress in the past year.
During the 2008 recession, worry and stress went up only 3 to 5 percentage points. But between last summer and March of this year, stress jumped 14 percentage points, with 60% of Americans experiencing significant stress the day before, up from 46 percent. Worry jumped 20 points, to 58% experiencing significant worry the day before.
“The change was the likes of which we’ve never seen,” said Gallup National Health and Well-Being Index research director Dan Witters.
“Not only were these changes meaningfully large, but they were catastrophic in their magnitude relative to what we have seen and measured, not just in the U.S., but around the world,” Witters said.
Worry and stress have since improved, Witters said, but they remain elevated.
Chicago therapist Annie Rosenthal said that early in the pandemic her clients were experiencing very high levels of anxiety — a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. Today, anxiety levels have declined, but stress remains high.
“We’re kind of used to it being there,” Rosenthal said. “It’s kind of like the scenario of the frog in the pot. If you put the frog in cold water and slowly turn (the heat) up, it doesn’t jump out because the heat is being applied incrementally, and it doesn’t know. We’ve got the slow burn going on.”
There is also good news, according to Colleen Doody, associate chair of the history department at DePaul University.
Doody sees a parallel to the Great Depression of the 1930s, an epic 10-year struggle marked by record unemployment, suicides, evictions, drought and food lines.
The unemployment level reached 25% in 1933, when unemployment insurance was still rare.
In contrast, the federal government stepped in quickly in the face of the economic devastation of COVID-19, Doody said.
“It’s heartwarming when government works, and in a lot of ways government worked very well early on to keep the economy from just tanking,” she said.
“The Fed made credit readily available, which was a direct response to their failures in the Great Depression, and (there was) increased unemployment insurance.”
Brittany Hutchinson, an assistant curator at the Chicago History Museum, cautioned that our collective memory of, say, World War II as a time of great national unity is centered largely on the white, middle-class experience.
The military was segregated during World War II, and Black Americans were routinely denied equal access to education and housing.
Polio, similarly, was seen as a “white disease,” Hutchinson said, and Black doctors struggled to get care for their patients.
Hutchinson pointed out that the last polio outbreaks coincided with the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. And the Spanish flu coincided with race riots in multiple U.S. cities in 1919.
Similarly, Black Lives Matter protests have erupted in the wake of COVID-19, she said.
“Just as a large crisis can be a unifier, it can also serve as a point of revelation for people,” Hutchinson said.
“You can see exactly how other individuals are experiencing something, and you can notice the inequities in our society,” she said. “And now that some of us have more time, (and are seeing how) our current and former co-workers are experiencing things, we have the drive to share our voice.”
Historians offered a range of reasons why looking back can be helpful in a time of crisis, among them that we gain perspective and learn from previous mistakes.
Hutchinson said she started researching past pandemics after she came down with a suspected case of COVID-19 in April.
“It’s comforting. I’m an historian — it’s kind of what I do,” she said of digging into the past. “But also it helped me be part of this conversation with my friends and family: OK, well, here’s what happened in the past, here’s how we can conceptualize it, here’s how we can center ourselves moving forward.”
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