(Image: AP/Mary Altaffer)

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a global pandemic. The same day the number of confirmed cases in the United States passed 1000. Fewer than 40 Americans were known to have died from the disease.

That evening, then-president Donald Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office. In typical Trump fashion his speech was littered with hubris and falsehoods. Having downplayed the virus for several weeks, wrongly comparing it to the flu and asserting “like a miracle, it will disappear”, Trump boasted about his team being the “best anywhere in the world”, blamed the European Union for permitting the spread of the virus into the United States, and without any consultation declared that all travel from Europe to America would be suspended two days later.

Trump’s pronouncement sparked an immediate panic as Americans abroad scrambled to secure flights home to avoid being stranded. While the order was soon amended to exempt American citizens and residents, it still resulted in thousands flooding airports nationwide without masks, social distancing, or any other checks or safeguards. It was the perfect petri dish for supercharging the virus’ spread.

By late April 50,000 people were dead. Twenty million were out of work. A month later fatalities topped 100,000, with another 100,000 taken in summer. Trump and his acolytes responded with partisan war. They discarded the comprehensive pandemic plan they had inherited from the Obama administration. They mocked masks and refused to wear them. They doctored data and sidelined officials to soft pedal the medical and economic emergency. They lied, day after day.

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Every action was viewed through the prism of politics. Disaster response was outsourced to the states, under the rubric of federalism, which Trump hoped would insulate him from blame. His most insidious move went completely unnoticed: exploiting the privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, he threatened hospitals with millions of dollars in fines if journalists revealed any patient identities, directly or indirectly, without advance permission.

Overwhelmed hospitals were in no position to argue, so they locked the media out. No pictures, no proof. Out of sight, out of mind for the American public.

Instead Trump bet the farm on a vaccine, which would allow him to take full credit for ending the pandemic and the recovery that would follow. It almost worked. Dubbed Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration shovelled $18 billion into pharmaceutical companies to expedite development of vaccines and treatment therapies to curtail the virus.

This public-private partnership — accelerated by unprecedented international scientific collaboration — has been an astonishing success. Prior to COVID-19, the fastest vaccine created was for mumps, which took four years to devise and only came after more rudimentary vaccines had been circulating for almost 20 years. By contrast, the first coronavirus vaccines were approved in just nine months. Just not soon enough to save Trump.

A year on, where does America stand? With COVID-19 deaths still exceeding 1500 per day, the nation yearns for a return to normal. But normal will never return. White-collar workers have become the Zoom generation. Employers are rethinking their need for spacious offices in expensive cities. Habits formed over decades have been upended overnight.

Blue-collar workers, long underpaid and overworked, have been rebranded as essential. Parents have been thrown into the deep end of home schooling. Few will take teachers for granted again.

Frontline health care workers have witnessed more trauma and death in a year than many might see in an entire career. They have grieved with loved ones and held the hands of patients as they died. They have watched their friends and colleagues die too. They have struggled through tears and fury as millions of their fellow citizens wilfully ignore basic precautions and denounce the pandemic as a hoax. The aftershocks from their service will be profound.

In the most pivotal inflection point of 2020, a record turnout of 158 million American voters — 22 million more than in 2016 — rejected Trump’s bid for a second term. Instead they elected Joe Biden to lead America out of the nightmare and into the new decade.

Following a turbulent transition, President Biden has hit the ground running. On inauguration day, only 12 million vaccine doses had been administered during the first five weeks of the rollout. Biden pledged to reach 100 million doses in his first 100 days in office. At the halfway point, this target has already been met. Following recent approval of a third vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, officials predict the daily rate will soon reach 3 million doses.

This week Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, a comprehensive $1.9 trillion relief bill that will provide ongoing support for workers and businesses, and inject stimulus into the economic bloodstream. Despite endorsing similar aid packages in March, April and December 2020, and widespread support from the American public, not a single Republican in Congress voted for Biden’s plan.

The political danger of the initiative is clear to them. After 40 years of denouncing government, they know that if the plan works and the sky does not fall in then their jig is up. Republican efforts to drown government in a bathtub will be over. Democrats know this too.

How do we measure a pandemic year? More than half a million lives lost in the US alone, a 20% surge on the typical annual toll. More than 100 million people infected according to epidemiologists. The highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, cresting 20 million at its peak. More than 100,000 bars, restaurants, hairdressers, salons and spas, movie theatres, hotels, retail stores, gyms and other small businesses shuttered. Life expectancy, which declined each year of Trump’s tenure — another first — plunged further still.

Meanwhile 661 billionaires are $1.3 trillion richer thanks to surging stock prices. The richest of them have so much spare change they now vie with NASA to explore space.

One life taken every minute, of every hour, of every day. That’s 525,600 dead. Lives ruined, industries rocked, businesses destroyed, and a populist president ejected from office by a record turnout. However we measure this pandemic year, what follows will never be the same.

What will it take for the US to recover from the pandemic — and the last four years? Let us know your thoughts by writing to letters@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for Crikey’s Your Say section.