The impossible yet irresistible pandemic-related question: When will things get back to normal? In a recent interview with the University of Melbourne, Dr. Anthony Fauci attempted to answer the question, saying that if “normal” is getting people back in the movie theaters, restaurants, and stadiums, it could be as late as 2022. But he hedged, “It really depends on what you mean by normal.”
So what is normal? Is it just returning to the smoking heap of 2019? If you were then living paycheck to paycheck, are we trying to return you to this hellish budgetary treadmill? What if you were already falling behind on your mortgage, riding the bleeding edge of foreclosure? Or possibly, if you are a scion of Sam Walton and got much wealthier during the pandemic, would a return to normalcy bump you back down the Forbes list? Look at normal long enough, and it begins to look a lot like a comforting word for the winners of the world.
The current health crisis is violent, uncaring, and unpredictable, and when it is over, it will be great to no longer worry about killing your parents by breathing on them. But far beyond that, the magnitude and duration of the pain is within our power to control; it takes on specific political dimensions: Will we invest in widespread tracing programs, top up workers’ lost incomes, and make loans available to cities struggling from a drop in tourism? We’ve faced similar situations in the recent past, and looking to them can give us a guide to how uneven a recovery can be, and just how long the effects can last.
Walking through the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn, the largest New York City Housing Authority complex in the borough, you’ll find an omnipresent construction zone. The 28 buildings are bordered by 39 acres of chain-link fence, which has blocked off benches and other seating areas and narrowed sidewalks. “Little shoddy sidewalks for these people to walk on. What if someone falls? This is crazy,” Tenant Association President Lilie Marshall told NY1 this summer. Dust from construction is ever-present.
In October 2012, the complex was slammed by a storm surge from Hurricane Sandy. Floodwaters in the neighborhood of Red Hook, which lies barely above sea level, rose to almost six feet in the 48 hours that the storm raged over New York. Nearly a decade later, residents of the Red Hook Houses are still reeling from the impact. Basements containing boilers and power systems were flooded, and residents were left without power and heat. Some people got carbon monoxide poisoning from using their stoves to warm their apartments, others were without fresh water for months.
While then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged a speedy response, it was more than two weeks after the storm that power came back for the more than 6,000 people living in the Red Hook Houses, who are overwhelmingly Black and Latinx and poor. But once the city brought in enough generators and the water had receded, the effects continued. A survey in 2014 found that 45 percent of tenants suffered from visible mold, an 11 percent increase from before the storm. It wasn’t until 2017 that a $550 million repair project began on the apartments, beginning with roof repairs and fixes to the hot water and power systems.
NYCHA predicts that these repairs will be done, at the earliest, by 2023. As recently as this summer, tenants held rallies to protest the scale of the construction zone, saying that it is now being done without their input and the sprawling site has made their lives a nightmare. It is paradoxically both too late and too much.
Comparing a hurricane to a pandemic isn’t such a stretch. They’re both disasters that our society couldn’t control but had the capacity to plan for and respond to quickly, and didn’t. In 2009, the City of New York wrote a hurricane plan in response to Hurricane Katrina, but it was never implemented. We all know about the Trump administration’s disastrous reshuffling of federal pandemic response teams. They’re both catastrophes that have widespread effects, and these effects tend to linger like the smell of rotting meat.
And while the response to both crises are different, they both come down to questions of the scale and speed of public investment. The more money the city allocates to construction, the faster it goes. The amount the federal government invests in an economic recovery will surely determine the length of economic pain stemming from lockdowns. And we know this because the last financial catastrophe beginning in 2008 similarly eroded state and city budgets. Among other things, housing prices crashed and many workers were laid off, dramatically curtailing property and income taxes.
But the dip in municipal incomes didn’t have to be a long-term problem. The federal government can run deficits that local governments can’t, and there was a moment in 2011 when the scale of the stimulus package was debated among technocrats in the Obama administration and things could have gone the other way. But the Obama administration decided that a proposed $1.2 trillion package was too luxurious, so it, on the urging of Larry Summers, went with a package that was roughly half that amount. It’s hard to draw a straight line between this dismal decision and the resulting pain of the last 10 years, but The Wall Street Journal reported in May that state and local budgets had only recovered to their pre-recession levels last fall. The government sent $275 billion to states and cities in 2009, but the money was spent by 2012. The same article finds that evidence from the last recession suggests that every dollar states and cities are forced to cut will ultimately cost society between $1.50 to $2. The cuts are very literally not worth it.
NYCHA, a department that has experienced decades of budget cuts, was a victim of city, state, and federal austerity in the wake of the recession, surely delaying the process of recovery after Hurricane Sandy as well as a whole host of other deferred maintenance. Today, some estimate the city’s budgetary shortfalls for the next couple of years will reach $13.5 billion.
So in regards to Fauci’s hedge, the other question is, whose normal are we talking about? Because some people are already recovered. There are businesses and high-net-worth individuals who have seen their financial lives improve this year, while the poorest people in society aren’t even close to fine. As an International Monetary Fund study indicated this year, pandemics have a nasty tendency to widen wealth inequality, with the effects worsening five years afterward. Already we’ve seen this trend—wages for high earners have rebounded, while low-wage workers are still struggling. The average income for public housing residents in New York is just a little over $25,000, just barely above the poverty line.
Hurricane Sandy lasted only about 48 hours, and yet the residents of the Red Hook Houses are living with the fallout eight years on. Once the surge of the pandemic has receded, how quickly can we make the most vulnerable in society whole? It might be longer than we think. And is a return to 2019—when construction on the Red Hook Houses was just kicking into gear, when there were 34 million families below the poverty line—good enough? If normal was pre-pandemic levels of substandard housing, hunger, and poverty, we might be back there soon enough. However, if what we’re really asking is when we might live better—to have enough, where right now there is only scarcity—we have a long way to go.