The Lessons of One of the Worst Years in American Life

WASHINGTON — The 365 days between the United States’ panicked retreat from offices and schools and President Biden’s speech on Thursday night, celebrating the prospect of a pandemic’s end, may prove to be one of the most consequential years in American history.


People learned about national vulnerabilities most had never considered, and about depths of resilience they never imagined needing except in wartime. Even the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, for all their horror and the two decades of war they ushered in, did not change day-to-day life in every city and town in the United States quite the way the coronavirus did.


One president lost his job in large part for mishandling a crisis whose magnitude he first denied. His successor knows his legacy depends on bringing the catastrophe to a swift conclusion.


The halting response demonstrated both the worst of American governing and then, from Operation Warp Speed’s 10-month sprint to vaccines to the frantic pace of inoculations in recent days, the very best. The economic earthquake as cities and towns shuttered so altered politics that Congress did something that would have been unimaginable a year ago this week. Lawmakers spent $5 trillion to dig the nation out of the economic hole created by the virus and, almost as a political aftershock, enacted an expansion of the social safety net larger than any seen since the creation of Medicare nearly 60 years ago.

停滞的疫情应对展示了美国政府治理中最糟糕的一面,然而,从“曲速行动”(Operation Warp Speed)这10个月的疫苗冲刺,再到近期极快的接种步伐,也显示了美国治理最好的一面。城市和村镇关闭时的经济地震改变了政治,国会本周做出了一年前无法想象的事情。议员们花了5万亿美元将国家从病毒造成的经济困境中解救出来,而且,几乎像是一场政治余震,国会还通过了扩大社会安全保障体系的法案,规模之大是联邦医疗保险创立近60年以来所没有的。

No country can go through this kind of trauma without being forever changed. There were indelible moments. In the spring came the racial reckoning brought on by the death of George Floyd after a police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. On Jan. 6 came the mob attack on the Capitol that led many to wonder whether American democracy was still capable of self-correction.

任何一个国家经历这样的创伤,都会被永远改变。其中有一些难忘的时刻。今年春天,明尼阿波利斯一名警察在乔治·弗洛伊德(George Floyd)的脖子上跪压了超过八分钟,弗洛伊德的去世引发了种族反思。1月6日,发生了暴徒袭击国会大厦的事件,令许多人怀疑美国的民主是否还能自我纠正。

But Mr. Biden’s message on Thursday centered on the thought that the country did finally come together in a common cause — vaccines as the road to normalcy — and from that could spring a glimmer of unity, as a still-divided nation seeks solace in millions of tiny jabs in the arm. In his speech, Mr. Biden held out two distinct dates of hope: July 4, when American life might seem a little like it once was, and May 1, when all adults in the United States will be eligible to receive a vaccine.


Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian whose book “These Truths” tracks the changing dynamics of technology and society in America since its discovery, wondered if Americans were unconsciously considering the new year as starting in late March, as it did in Britain and its colonies until the calendar changed in 1752. “Or maybe it begins the day you get your vaccine,” she said. “Or the day enough of us get a vaccine.”

哈佛大学历史学家吉尔·莱波雷(Jill Lepore)的《真理的史诗》(These Truths)一书追踪了自发现新大陆以来美国的科技与社会动态变化。她想知道,美国人是否会下意识地觉得新的一年是从3月下旬开始的,就像英国及其殖民地在1752年更改历法之前那样。“或者是从你接种疫苗的那一天开始,”她说。”或者是从我们有足够多的人接种疫苗的那一天开始。”

For Mr. Biden, the question is when he will be able to pivot from what he has called the “rescue” phase of the pandemic to the “recovery” phase after the pandemic. In his speech on Thursday, the president made it clear that the rescue was still underway.


His goal, his chief of staff, Ron Klain, said in an interview, is “laying up the next steps in this rescue and what, now that we’ve got this bill passed, are we really going to do in the coming months to get back toward a more normal way of life in this country.”

他的幕僚长罗恩·克莱恩(Ron Klain)在接受采访时说,拜登的目标是“安排这次救援的下一步工作,还有,既然我们已经通过了这项法案,还需要安排好未来几个月里该怎样做才能让这个国家重新走向更正常的生活方式”。

All of Mr. Biden’s instincts tell him that declaring a move to recovery too soon carries dangers. It would signal that states could follow the example of Texas, eliminating mask mandates, opening restaurants and bars too quickly, and making themselves vulnerable to a resurgence — what Mr. Biden called “Neanderthal thinking.”


His top cabinet members have emphasized that even eliminating the virus at home is not enough. As his secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, said last month, “Unless and until everyone in the world is vaccinated, then no one is really fully safe, because if the virus is out there and continuing to proliferate, it’s also going to be mutating.”

他的高级内阁成员强调,即使国内消灭了病毒也是不够的。正如他的国务卿安东尼·J·布林肯(Antony J. Blinken)上个月所说,“除非世界上所有人都接种了疫苗,否则没有人是真正完全安全的,因为如果病毒存在并继续扩散,它还会发生变异。”

“And if it’s mutating,” he added, “it’s also going to come back and bite people everywhere.”


But the essence of Mr. Biden’s message on Thursday evening, aides said, is that for the first time people can begin to imagine a post-Covid world. Americans, they said, can start to think about managing the virus to the point where it does not drive every government decision, every family debate about where to go to dinner, or when to visit grandparents.


All of which raises the question of what will be permanently changed and what, when the history of this national trauma is written, will prove recoverable. And what will the country have learned?


The past provides a mixed guide. There were too few lessons gleaned from the 1918 pandemic, an event that most history books overlooked, and that many Americans first heard about in any detail a century later, when it returned to afflict the nation in a different form. But in 1918, as in 2020, the president’s instinct was to play down its severity, invoking the odd logic that Americans would be dispirited by the truth even as their family and friends succumbed around them.


President Donald J. Trump has never been a student of history (although his grandfather Frederick Trump died of the flu in 1918), and he told the journalist Bob Woodward that “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down,” because “I don’t want to create a panic.”

唐纳德·J·特朗普(Donald J. Trump)总统从没好好学过历史(尽管他的祖父弗雷德里克·特朗普[Frederick Trump]在1918年死于流感),他告诉记者鲍勃·伍德沃德(Bob Woodward),“我想一直低调对待这件事。我还是喜欢淡化它”,因为“我不想制造恐慌”。

No one will know how many thousands of lives that cost as Mr. Trump ridiculed mask-wearing and did so little to promote the vaccine in the last days of his administration when it moved from laboratory to market in record time.


Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, whom Mr. Biden deliberately made his top medical adviser, referred to those unnecessary deaths on Thursday when, on NBC, he said that a year ago this week, “it would have shocked me completely” to know that more than half a million Americans would die of the disease. But he noted that the country paid a horrific price for its political divisions.

被拜登特意任命为首席医学顾问的安东尼·S·福奇(Anthony S. Fauci)博士在周四提到了那些不必要的死亡,在NBC节目中,他说,一年前的这个星期,如果知道会有超过50万美国人死于这种疾病,“这绝对会让我震惊。”但他指出,美国为政治分歧付出了可怕的代价。

“Even simple common-sense health measures took on a political connotation,” he said. “It wasn’t a pure public health approach. It was very much influenced by the divisiveness we have in this country.”


When Mr. Trump and Melania Trump, his wife, received the vaccine in January, they did not make it public. It was left to Mr. Biden and members of his administration to be inoculated on live television as an encouragement to those Americans fearful of the vaccine.

当特朗普和妻子梅拉尼娅·特朗普(Melania Trump)在1月接种疫苗时,他们没有公开此事。为了鼓励害怕疫苗的美国人而对着电视直播镜头接种的,是拜登和他的政府成员。

The second big lesson may be that when properly organized, the same government that mobilized for World War II and landed men on the moon can in fact save lives on a mass scale. To the Biden administration, that meant taking the vaccines developed in record time and devising a vital distribution system.


Operation Warp Speed “was very important work, and I don’t mean to minimize it,” Mr. Klain said. “But there was no plan for how we were going to get this vaccine into the arms of tens, and ultimately hundreds, of millions of Americans.”


When the history of this strange moment is written, Mr. Biden will almost certainly be credited for getting a quarter of the adult population vaccinated with at least one shot, and 10 percent fully vaccinated, in his first 50 days. After years in which government was denigrated as more of an impediment to national greatness than a vehicle of progress, when conspiracy theories about a pernicious “deep state” still abound, it is a show of government competence.


“What we don’t know is whether that translates into encouraging people into public service, or at least trusting that the government can get something done right,” said Richard N. Haass, a longtime diplomat and now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “After 9/11, we rose to the task of fighting global terrorism. After Covid-19, we rose to a different task.”

“我们不知道这是否会转化为一种力量,鼓励人们从事公共服务,或者至少相信政府能把事情做好,”长期从事外交工作、现任外交关系委员会(Council on Foreign Relations)主席的理查德·N·哈斯(Richard N. Haass)说。“9·11之后,我们肩负起打击全球恐怖主义的重任。新冠病毒之后,我们开始承担另一项任务。”

“It remains to be seen,” he said, “whether we can now also use the moment to lessen the effects of domestic division.”


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