Show an ad over header. AMP

The coronavirus pandemic is killing public life

By removing Americans from public life, the pandemic is threatening long-term damage to the essential services we all share — like schools and transit — while worsening inequality.

Why it matters: Technology has helped keep many — though far from all of us — working, fed and even entertained at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the forced retreat from public life will have toxic ramifications unless the places and services we all share can be saved.


The big picture: As deadly as COVID-19 has been for those who have caught it, the pandemic could prove even more devastating for the institutions and services that make up the civic sphere.

  • Public schools across the country have seen a drastic drop in enrollment, in part because parents frustrated by COVID-closed classrooms and poor remote learning have turned to private schools, which have remained open at higher rates than their public counterparts. Some families are even homeschooling.
  • Combined with students moving to private schools, that could lead to budget cuts for public schools that get funding on a per-student basis.
  • Public transit systems have been crippled by COVID-19, as ridership plummets because of fear of infection and a shift to remote work. The drop in demand comes as funding for pubic transportation is threatened by plunging state and local government revenue.

And the office — that private space in public where many of us used to gather on a daily basis — is mortally threatened. Nearly 14% of office space in Midtown Manhattan is vacant, the highest rate since the depths of the 2009 recession.

  • A recent McKinsey report found three to four times more people could end up working remotely than before the pandemic, which "would have a profound impact on urban economies, transportation, and consumer spending."
  • The hospitality industry faces an existential crisis, with nearly 1 in 6 restaurants closing permanently or long-term as of September.

Be smart: It might be easy to assume we'll reenter public life when the pandemic finally ends. But habits once broken aren't easily restored, especially as the knock-on effects of COVID-19 erode the value of public services.

  • Both public schools and transit face what some experts have called a "death spiral." As frustrated parents and scared passengers withdraw from the public system, they take tax dollars and fares with them, which means schools and transit services worsen.
  • That, in turn, "will cause some of our customers to say, 'you know what, it's not worth it,'" as Pat Foye, the head of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority told Bloomberg TV last month.

Those changes will widen what was already a yawning gap of inequality in the U.S., as only those who can't afford private solutions are left to make do with public remnants.

  • "The secession of upper-middle-class families from public school to private school is very bad for the country and for educational equity," Richard Kahlenberg, director of K-12 equity at The Century Foundation, told TIME.

Between the lines: Both push and pull factors are at work in the dissolution of public life.

  • As technology has improved, so have the benefits of staying at home, where you can increasingly watch what you want, eat what you want, and — if you're fortunate — work how you want, all on your own schedule.
  • In the years to come, TVs and game systems — like the next-generation platforms that sold out in seconds this fall — will only improve.
  • What this means is that public life and services — which require us to do the messy work of compromising with our fellow citizens — will be competing against an on-demand private life that will only get better in the years ahead.

What to watch: Whether Congress approves billions of dollars in much-needed money to rescue public transit and schools as part of a new round of COVID-19 stimulus funding.

The bottom line: It matters hugely whether our future involves returning to the office and public life or watching streaming reruns of "The Office" from our couches while ordering from DoorDash.

COVID-19 drives smell loss awareness, research

The pandemic has thrust a relatively unknown ailment, anosmia — or smell loss — into the international spotlight.

Why it matters: Researchers hope smell testing becomes as standard as the annual flu shot, helping to detect early signs of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Keep reading... Show less

Why we need to know COVID's origins

Geopolitical tensions are foiling efforts to get to the bottom of how COVID-19 originated.

Why it matters: Insights into how COVID-19 began can help us prevent future pandemics — especially if it involved any kind of leak or accident at a virology lab.

Keep reading... Show less

Mexican Americans are the US largest Latino group but lack political power for their numbers

Data: Pew Research Center, U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Michelle McGhee/Axios

Mexican Americans make up the nation's largest Latino group, yet they remain politically outshined by more recently arrived Cuban Americans.

Why it matters: The disparities in political power between Mexican Americans and Cuban Americans reflect the racial, historical, geographical and economic differences within Latino cultures in the U.S.

Keep reading... Show less

A coronavirus vaccine passport to nowhere

Vaccine passports could become available soon to help people resume their livesbut theyface numerous scientific, social and political barriers to being accepted.

The big picture: Reliable and accessible proof of vaccine-induced protection from the novel coronavirus could speed international travel and economic reopening, but obstacles to its wide-scale adoption are so great it may never fully arrive.

Keep reading... Show less

Senate Democrats reach deal on extending unemployment insurance

Senate Democrats struck a deal Friday evening on extending unemployment insurance in the President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package after deliberating for most of the day, per a Senate aide.

Why it matters: The deal allows Congress to move forward with voting on amendments to the bill, though it caused a massive delay in the 20-hour debate over the legislation.

Keep reading... Show less

Capitol review panel recommends boosting security with more police, mobile fencing

A panel appointed by Congress to review security measures at the Capitol is recommending several changes, including mobile fencing and a bigger Capitol police force, to safeguard the area after a riotous mob breached the building on Jan 6.

Why it matters: Law enforcement officials have warned there could be new plots to attack the area and target lawmakers, including during a speech President Biden is expected to give to a joint session of Congress.

Keep reading... Show less

Financial fallout from the Texas deep freeze

Texas has thawed out after an Arctic freeze last month threw the state into a power crisis. But the financial turmoil from power grid shock is just starting to take shape.

Why it matters: In total, electricity companies are billions of dollars short on the post-storm payments they now owe to the state's grid operator. There's no clear path for how they will pay — something being watched closely across the country as extreme weather events become more common.

Keep reading... Show less

Chamber of Commerce decides against widespread political ban following Capitol insurrection

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce revealed Friday it won't withhold political donations from lawmakers who simply voted against certifying the presidential election results and instead decide on a case-by-case basis.

Why it matters: The Chamber is the marquee entity representing businesses and their interests in Washington. Its memo, obtained exclusively by Axios, could set the tone for businesses debating how to handle their candidate and PAC spending following the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

Keep reading... Show less

Insights

mail-copy

Get Goodhumans in your inbox

Most Read

More Stories