US marks anniversary of Covid lockdowns, with repercussions still felt a year later

President Joe Biden is marking the lockdown anniversary in first national prime time address

Businesses deemed non-essential shuttered during a New York City lockdown, downtown Brooklyn, March 2020. Patrick deHahn/The National 

A year ago today, on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, as the World Health Organisation officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic, the seriousness of the virus was becoming abundantly clear in America.

A series of lockdowns followed.

“We will see more cases and things will get worse than they are right now,” the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, said before Congress that Wednesday morning.

“How much worse we'll get will depend on our ability to do two things: to contain the influx of people who are infected coming from the outside and the ability to contain and mitigate within our own country.

“Bottom line, it's going to get worse,” he added.

Later that night, then-president Donald Trump closed air borders to Europe in a prime time national address; the NBA sports league suspended the rest of its season; and, actor Tom Hanks and actress Rita Wilson announced they had contracted the virus.

There were only six deaths to Covid-19 in the US on March 11, along with 245 known cases, according to a tracker from The New York Times.

New York recorded a growing number of cases, including the first in a Manhattan individual who had arrived from Iran. A community experiencing a rise of cases to the north of the city, New Rochelle, locked down on March 11 in hopes of stemming the further spread of the disease in the state and nearby New York City, but officials later realised there were many unrecorded cases elsewhere.

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"As a nation, we can't be doing the kinds of things we were doing a few months ago."

These major events made the pandemic and its wide-ranging effects very real for many Americans.

People realised easy cross-Atlantic business and travel couldn’t continue, as the coronavirus didn’t discriminate between a neighbour, a person in a faraway country or a favourite celebrity.

“As a nation, we can’t be doing the kinds of things we were doing a few months ago,” Dr Fauci said in a March 10 press briefing.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in a state that has no cases or one case – you have to start taking seriously what you can do now, if and when the infections will come. And they will come. Sorry to say, sad to say, they will.”

Almost everything in American daily life was affected in a cascading succession of events in the following days and weeks.

Mr Trump declared a national state of emergency on March 13, the same day US-EU travel was halted.

The goal was to lock down to stop the uncontrolled and undetected spread of the virus, as very little was known about it, and to prevent overwhelming hospitals and health systems.

Under the Trump administration, there was no organised federal national action to stop the virus and approaches were left to individual states, leading to an uneven response.

As part of the lockdowns, businesses were either labelled essential or non-essential. Those deemed essential took on coronavirus mitigation and they remained open. Offices asked employees to stay home and work remotely.

A record 6.6 million Americans filed for jobless benefits in a single week. The unemployment rate went from 3.5 per cent in February to over 14 per cent in April.

Schools and day care centres closed, forcing teachers to hold classes remotely and making parents add schooling to their schedules. Many suffered new mental health issues.

Several US governors declared their own states of emergencies in early March and limited large gatherings.

Stay-at-home orders were issued as cases and deaths skyrocketed later in the month, like in California on March 19 and New York state on March 20.

New York City eventually became the global epicentre of the pandemic.

At least three in four people in the country were under some form of lockdown by the end of March, BBC News reported at the time.

An empty commercial business street with shops closed during a lockdown in New York City, March 2020. Patrick deHahn/The National 

After the lockdown

The lockdowns worked, as the first surge of cases in the US was flattened in May.

Many states then lifted their stay-at-home orders and shifted to restrictions that allowed businesses to reopen with limitations that aimed to avoid widespread infections. As warmer weather came, restaurants were allowed to open outdoor dining spaces.

However, the early pandemic mantra of "flatten the curve" didn't last long as surges occurred in July and again in the fall leading into the winter holidays.

No US state issued stay-at-home orders again, even as the US reached record levels of cases. At its worst, 131,000 people were admitted to hospital and the country saw several single-day death tolls of 4,000 in early January.

More than 529,000 people in the US have died from Covid-19, the highest death toll for any country globally.

The US also ranks in the top five countries with the most deaths per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University.

In other developed countries – like Australia or South Korea – lockdowns were uniformly rolled out and taken seriously. As a result, cases stayed low throughout the pandemic.

Recent research found that 40 per cent of US Covid deaths could be attributable to Mr Trump's policies, when compared to those of other G7 countries.

Then and now

Under Mr Biden's administration, the focus has been on widespread vaccination as cases decline – but these remain at high levels as highly transmissible variants continue to spread.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention report 18.8 per cent of people over 18 years old have had at least one dose of the vaccine, while 9.9 per cent have been fully vaccinated.

The remote work experiment still continues to this day, as few offices have reopened. There are ongoing conversations about whether people will be comfortable returning or if workplaces will introduce flexible work policies.

It's been difficult for the US to move past the sharp economic decline that has resulted from the pandemic. Hiring has stagnated, according to the latest monthly jobs report.

Approximately 4.1 million people in the US have been out of work for six months.

A Facebook study in December found that at least 25 per cent of small to medium-sized businesses in the US have closed temporarily or permanently.

Schools have largely remained closed or have reopened with hybrid models allowing pupils to do both in-person and remote classes.

For example, New York City, which has the nation's largest school system, reopened with a rigorous testing system and several coronavirus measures like mask mandates and open windows for ventilation.

“If you had turned the clock back a year, even though I've been through multiple outbreaks of different diseases, the thought that you would have 525,000 people in America who have died and about, you know, 28 million infections in this country, would have really been unimaginable,” Dr Fauci told CNN on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, some states are moving forward as if all is said and done.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott removed the state's face mask mandate and allowed businesses to reopen at 100 per cent this week.

Health officials are still issuing caution, with most people still unvaccinated.

"Don't put your guard down completely," Dr Fauci said this week. "Just be prudent a bit longer. We are going in the right direction. We are almost there.”

President Joe Biden is marking the lockdown anniversary in his first national prime time address tonight.