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4 years after the pandemic struck: lessons learned and opportunities missed


When we think about a year, we often think about big, personal moments or about big things that happened in the world. Well, 2020, it turned it all upside down with what we hope was a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Four years later, though, we're still working through everything that happened in the world and to ourselves. So we have two guests who've been thinking a lot about that, about lessons learned and opportunities missed. Eric Klinenberg is a sociologist at New York University, where he directs the Institute for Public Knowledge. His latest book is "2020: One City, Seven People, And The Year Everything Changed." Eric Klinenberg, thanks so much for joining us.

ERIC KLINENBERG: It's nice to be here.

MARTIN: And Dr. Cornelia Griggs was a pediatric surgery fellow in New York at the outset of the COVID pandemic in 2020. Her new book is called "The Sky Was Falling: A Young Surgeon's Story Of Bravery, Survival, And Hope." And, Dr. Griggs, welcome to you, as well. Thank you for joining us.

CORNELIA GRIGGS: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: I'm just going to ask you to start by describing the mood in your hospital as COVID-19 evolved from, you know, what was, for most of us, a rumor to an actual pandemic. What sticks with you today?

GRIGGS: Absolutely. I've been in a lot of high-stakes medical scenarios in my career, and I was terrified about COVID and what I saw coming in the impending crisis. And it wasn't until we saw the lines piling up outside of the emergency room that I think people really started to get it, that this was going to be the black swan of our medical generation.

MARTIN: You know, in your book, you recall - you wrote about feeling, quote, "idiotic" - your words - "that I didn't pay closer attention to what was happening in China. I smugly assumed we would be better prepared or somehow better equipped in the United States." Why do you think that is?

GRIGGS: I had the sense that our systems in the U.S. would be better equipped, or that there would be experts in the CDC and the federal government, surely, who had anticipated a contagion of that speed and severity. But it turns out our public health infrastructure was absolutely ill-equipped in many ways.

MARTIN: Eric Klinenberg, let me turn to you. You decided to tell this story through the eyes of seven people that you found. They were in all boroughs, you know, of the city. Is there anything that they had in common?

KLINENBERG: I think what has touched Americans, regardless of where they live or what their political ideology is, is the sense that maybe before 2020, we thought there were some experts and core institutions that would take care of us in a crisis. And now I think a lot of Americans are just not so sure. No one speaks to that more than Danny Presti. He was a bar manager in Staten Island. It's the most conservative of the five New York City boroughs. Danny was trying to start a bar in 2019, not a political guy. It was just before the pandemic started, and they couldn't get their business going. They were open and then closed and serving sub sandwiches to try to get by 'cause they couldn't have people in the bar.

And at the end of 2020, he found a bunch of commentators in the right-wing media who spoke to him, and he decided to turn his bar into an autonomous zone. And, you know, of course, what happened is that the police came, but also hundreds and maybe more than a thousand right-wing demonstrators came, the Proud Boys came, and they rallied against these regulations - public health regulations. So by the end of the year, Presti had transformed into a hardcore, right-wing activist. I think a lot of Americans got radicalized in 2020, and we're still dealing with that legacy.

MARTIN: You know, the other person I wanted to ask you about - and this really just - I was shocked when I read this chapter - was Enuma Menkiti. And she and her husband are both essential workers.

KLINENBERG: Well, a big argument in my book is that crises reveal things. They show us who we are and what we value. And of course, you know, Persol and Enuma, it's a Black couple. Black people and Latinos were more likely to be called essential workers, which means more likely to be exposed to the virus and more likely to bring it home if they did get COVID. But it was heartbreaking because when they came back and recovered, their home daycare kept telling them that they were closed and they wouldn't take their children because they thought they're, like, vectors for the disease because they're essential workers. And they were shut out of their community. And it was a community that prized itself on tolerance and social justice. And I think that's something we need to remember in the United States. If we're still feeling scarred and upset and distrustful about this country and about each other, it's partly because we experience things like this, and then we just have refused to talk about it.

MARTIN: You know, the other thing I wanted to raise is that Eric Klinenberg's book talked about the hypocrisy around essential workers. It said on the one hand, everybody was saying our health care heroes. These are our heroes. Thank you, essential workers. On the other hand, some people were really up against it and just got nothing of what they needed in order to function. And I wonder, Dr. Griggs, if that - if you felt that way.

GRIGGS: Absolutely. And there were days that I was really angry, and walking into work in the morning felt like "The Hunger Games." May the odds be ever in your favor. And I, for the first time in my life, felt that my life was not important to my employer. And that's not to point a finger at any one particular person or hospital. The hospitals were trying to figure out how to, you know, fly the plane as it was being built. There were no resources to be able to provide us with enough PPE. It was a crisis. It was a disaster. And I think we are only beginning to scratch the surface of the reckoning of the collective trauma that essential workers went through in the first wave of COVID in the spring of 2020, and there are still no resources, really systematically, to be able to cope with that or understand what that means for our future work lives and careers.

MARTIN: That is Dr. Cornelia Griggs and Eric Klinenberg. They've both written books reflecting on lessons learned - and those still to be learned - from 2020. Both their books are out now. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

GRIGGS: Thank you.

KLINENBERG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NELS CLINE'S "THE BOND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Devan Schwartz
Devan Schwartz is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition. He is an experienced audio professional who, in addition to his work with NPR, has worked with such organizations as BBC, Slate, the New York Times, and various public radio stations.