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March 16, 2021, 1:47 p.m. EDT

‘Change can happen without us noticing’: COVID brought us a year of epic uncertainty — but here’s what I know for sure

‘The isolation doesn’t seem quite so intense one year later. Perhaps we have normalized it, but we can be forgiven if our stoicism turns to fatigue’

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By Quentin Fottrell, MarketWatch


MarketWatch illustration
‘Investment decisions made from fear rarely end up in a good place.’

How are you? It’s been quite a year.

The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus public-health emergency a “pandemic” a year ago. Looking back, we can see how far we have come, and how we have already begun the return to a kind of normality, a New Normal. In New York, at least. Restaurants can expand to 50% capacity by March 19. Offices are preparing plans for a phased return to work.

There is a vaccine. In fact, there are vaccines . Just over 10% of New Yorkers are fully vaccinated, in line with the national average. The prospect of one vaccine seemed like a lifetime away last March, and it came too late for 534,142 Americans. The isolation doesn’t seem quite so intense one year later. Perhaps we have normalized it, but we can be forgiven if our stoicism turns to fatigue.

America has a new administration. Sixty-two percent of people approve of the job President Joe Biden is doing handling the pandemic, according to an NPR/PBS News Hour poll, conducted by Marist, released Thursday. He got a lower 49% job approval rating. Still, Biden signed a $1.9-trillion stimulus package on Thursday, the third such rescue package since the pandemic began.

‘Always expect the unexpected.’

“There’s a sense of progress,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. That progress may come at a cost. Texas has abandoned its statewide mask mandate, a move decried by health professionals and scientific studies on the effectiveness of masks in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19. Austin, the state’s fourth-largest city, will keep its mask mandate.

So what have we learned over the last 12 months? From a financial perspective, we have learned to always have an emergency fund, and to expect the unexpected. Stay on top of your taxes because you never know when the Internal Revenue Service will be enlisted to send out millions of stimulus checks. Don’t panic. Investment decisions made from fear rarely end up in a good place.

The pandemic exacerbated a lot of inequality in our society. Millions of Americans did not have the luxury of working from home. And many of those frontline workers who showed up for work every day — bus and train drivers, supermarket and health-care workers — also paid a heavy price both in terms of their physical and mental health. They put their lives on the line for the rest of us.

Helping others is helping yourself. “Thinking about others actually has several benefits in times of crisis,” according to Andy Reed, Fidelity Investment’s behavioral economics research lead and psychologist. “First, we tend to be less biased when making decisions on behalf of other people or taking others’ perspectives.” And, he said, it can help alleviate our own stress and anxiety.

‘Stay above the flood plain’

Fidelity offered tips for dealing with a public-health crisis such as this: “To prepare for the future, spend some time learning from the past. Those who learned a new skill, found strength they didn’t know they had, or built resilience as a result of the pandemic.” And, “Tackle obstacles by breaking challenges down into pieces and solving them one at a time.” Don’t wait until they pile up.

“Don’t be afraid to get by with a little help from others, in good times or bad,” it added. “This isn’t easy, as many survey respondents indicated they receive the greatest support during joyous rather than challenging events.” The survey suggested people hold back on “sharing the negative.” We can use Zoom /zigman2/quotes/211319643/composite ZM -0.87% , Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +0.50%  and FaceTime /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL +0.34%  to counteract that.

In the meantime, make a will, even if you are young and especially if you have kids and encouraging others to do so. Stay above the flood plain, both in your life and at work. You never know when you may have to adapt and change, and the more experience and ways you can think of sharpening your skills, the better. Keep thinking ahead. How can I do this differently? What more can I offer?

‘Helping others is helping yourself.’

Unfortunately, there’s a gap between how the rich and poor fared during the coronavirus pandemic, just like they did 100 years ago. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, wealthier people had a better chance of survival: Individuals of moderate and higher economic status had a mortality rate of 0.38%, versus 0.52% for those of lower economic status and 1% for those who were very poor.

Economically, women were disproportionately harmed by both pandemics. The International Labour Organization said women were in greater danger of contracting COVID-19 and less likely to have Social Security, “as they make up the vast majority of domestic, health and social-care workers globally.” A man who lost his wife to the virus in 1918 fared better than a woman who lost her spouse.

What did I learn? I need very little. All of those things that we spend our life accumulating — clothing, shoes, the latest, replaceable gadgets — are superfluous when we have food on the table, a roof over our heads and people we can reach out to. Regular calls to dear friends, especially those who are isolated, can make a difference between a good day and any old day.

Change can happen without us noticing. The health-care system survived the initial flood of patients, many of whom were struggling to breathe. New York City did not run out of ventilators, even though it was the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. It has since been overtaken by California in the number of COVID-related deaths. But the regular fury of ambulance sirens slowly went away.

Some things are constant. The mysterious trumpet player in my neighborhood whose music appeared to beckon the clanging of pots and pans every evening at 7 p.m. continues, even if the neighborhood cheering for health-care workers and frontline staff has not. The music is soothing, and the player’s consistency is reassuring. But it is also a gentle reminder that it is not over yet.

Read more in the MarketWatch series, ‘Dispatches from a pandemic.’


Carrie Anne Tocci
New York was the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in the U.S. in March 2020. One year later, the city is slowly coming back to life.

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Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch's personal-finance editor and The Moneyist columnist for MarketWatch. You can follow him on Twitter @quantanamo.

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