Medical staff tend to a patient in a medically induced coma.

Medical staff tend to a patient in a medically induced coma. Credit: Jeffrey Basinger

For New Yorkers, everything started changing quickly on March 11, two full years ago.

That was the day the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, meaning there was worldwide spread of a new disease. That night came news of the postponement of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City, and the suspension of the National Basketball Association’s season, after a Utah Jazz game was delayed moments before tipoff due to a star center’s infection.

March 12 brought a state ban on large gatherings, the shuttering of Broadway, the suspension of nursing home visits.

In Albany, former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said, "This is going to get worse before it gets better."

It did.

As the infections mounted and fatalities struck, restrictions and protections began snapping into place, as many Long Islanders girded up to protect themselves and others.

Looking back, it seemed for a moment that this would all be brief, and that everyone would band together in a spirit of collective cooperation. People lined up for provisions and toilet paper at warehouse clubs and supermarkets, and watched as the realities of regular life dropped off the table, from SAT tests and elective surgeries to holidays and cherished celebrations. People largely accepted those changes and talked of stopping the spread, learning to social distance.

Nurses at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn show their appreciation for...

Nurses at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn show their appreciation for Cynthia Julia Lagudi's handmade masks. Credit: Sandra Hernandez

There were communal benevolent feelings, embodied by the ritual 7 p.m. cheers for health care workers, and the donated food that started showing up outside disease-besieged hospitals: bagels, pizza, deli sandwiches, smoothies, pound cake, pretzel trays.


But catering trays didn't halt COVID-19. Drastic measures helped, including the federal push to support vaccine creation under former President Donald Trump, and Cuomo's work to marshal supplies and equipment. But these leaders and others on the international, federal and state levels also made mistake after mistake in their pandemic response.

China, where the disease originated, was too secretive early. Trump buried his head in the sand. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave muddled advice, including on masks. Cuomo moved too slowly on full closures and restrictions. Hospitals were scandalously short of protective equipment and guidance. We will spend years unveiling the consequences of these and other errors.

Unfortunately, all of this laid the groundwork for one of the great cultural reactions of our time: a turn to COVID disillusionment.

Demonstrators protest New York City's vaccine mandate for employees in...

Demonstrators protest New York City's vaccine mandate for employees in February. Credit: AP/Yuki Iwamura

Even as the death toll spiked week by week, long before the vaccine rollout, many New Yorkers became exhausted with the pandemic and its restrictions, mistrusting of leaders and experts, and less willing to mold their lives for others’ good.

And we remain in this age of COVID disillusionment even now.

These long years of the pandemic did not just result in nearly a million dead Americans so far, a number that is surely a severe undercount. The scourge also isolated us and put us even further into our own separate corners, heightening a polarization that has been growing in American life for years. Hyperbolic debates over whether or not to wear a thin piece of material over one’s mouth became doctrinal. The rollout of speedily developed, miraculously lifesaving vaccines and treatments has been blunted by far too much skepticism given the weight of evidence in their favor. The haphazard uptake is even more profound when it comes to boosters.


Two years after COVID-19 struck New York, we could be at an inflection point, with infection and hospitalization numbers dropping and most facets of pre-2020 life returning to normal. But a state of disillusionment that scoffs at masks, vaccines, and restrictions is no way to keep a future variant at bay — and no way to face myriad crises of international relations, and climate change, that we know are coming in our direction, along with all the other unexpected challenges at home and abroad we cannot imagine.

To face that future, our public health, emergency response, and government institutions must be strengthened. And there are practical steps that would prepare us for the next disaster: better risk assessments by our intelligence agencies, prioritizing national public health, and reforming the CDC's ability to respond quickly in emergencies. Congress rightly is looking to the future and increasing funding for stockpiles and research by nearly $300 million.

Most importantly, our leaders must create and maintain trust with the public through improved, focused crisis communications as well as a more transparent decision-making process for assessing risks.

But even before that next challenge arrives, we would do well to remember those March days two years ago when COVID was new. When we were not yet dug into our partisan COVID trenches. When we had few infectious disease opinions beyond the fact that this all seemed a little crazy and definitely scary. And when most of us understood the logic and morality of setting aside disillusionment and reflexive distrust, and banding together to protect our families, ease our neighbors’ burden, and even save lives.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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