We're re-opening, but pandemic social costs will linger

We're re-opening, but pandemic social costs will linger
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With jobs rebounding and isolation-weary Americans opening the spending spigots, the economy seems well on its way back from the costly setbacks during the Pandemic.

There may be some long-term economic casualties — small businesses that shuttered permanently, maybe commercial real estate — but the outlook is a return to the pre-COVID situation in a year or so.

Much more worrisome is recovering from the catastrophic social costs: young kids missing a full year of school; a sharp rise in drug overdoses; horrendous stories of spousal and child abuse. All these disproportionately hurt poorer families.

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The only way to alleviate the long-term consequences will require more resources from the federal, state and local governments. The scars are so deep it can't be done on the cheap.

The missed in-person school time, especially for young children, will have an “absolutely stunningly large economic cost that just keeps piling up” predicts Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist. He estimates a long-term 2.2 percent GDP loss. Another study pegged lost skills at somewhere between $14 trillion to $28 trillion. A McKinsey report found that K to fifth grade U.S. students lost significant reading and math skills over the last year. For students of color, in low-income communities, it was much higher.

Virtual learning is more difficult for most younger children; Microsoft has estimated almost half of American families have unreliable internet connections. The COVID relief measures have provided billions to local governments to improve and expand broadband connectivity. There remains a considerable gap.

What's needed will be crash programs, longer school days, summer programs, more support for administrators and teachers.

With isolation, job losses and more anxiety/depression, drug use has soared during the pandemic. The Center for Disease Control figures suggest there may have been as many as 90,000 total overdoses last year, up from 70,630 the year before, the previous high; it would be the biggest year-to-year increase ever.

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The American Medical Association estimates that more than 40 states fear there were increases in opioid mortalities last year, including hard-hit Kentucky. Sharon Walsh is a professor at the University of Kentucky and director of the Center of Drug and Alcohol Research. She found that overuse-related emergency room incidents rose last year, while other emergency room visits declined. There are signs it’s “leveling off,” she told me, but cautions it's too early to draw that conclusion. 

The considerable damage already done requires a significant response. Jesse Baumgartner of the Commonwealth Fund, which researches these issues, cites the necessity of “expanding or reestablishing access to medication-assisted treatments disrupted” during the pandemic. He says states like South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida — all of which saw overdose deaths rise by more than 30 percent during the first eight months of 2020 — need to participate in Medicaid expansion. That provides critical treatment for many drug abusers, but is resisted by right-wing controlled states.

Walsh also stresses the need to assure there are adequate supplies of Naloxone, a drug which can quickly reverse the effects of an opioid crisis and save lives.

The same factors — isolation, economic hardship, depression — have exacerbated family and child abuse. The New England Journal of Medicine reported that what it calls “Intimate Partner Violence” to a spouse or partner is a “pandemic within a pandemic.” Numbers are elusive because the places victims would report incidents aren't operating as they were.

This is true of child abuse too. JAMA Pediatric reported an uptick in calls to child abuse hotlines in the early stages of the pandemic. Daphne Young, chief communications officer for ChildHelp, the only national hotline for child abuse, told me the great fear is after the pandemic, when the world opens up, it “will be like opening Pandora's box, and we will see a lot of the abuse that was hidden in the shadows of the lockdown.”

While the physical challenges are lessening as more Americans get vaccinated, these social costs will remain a long-term problem for years to come. The attention, access, acceptance and resources provided for mental health are more necessary than ever.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the name of ChildHelp, the national hotline.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.