It was almost three months ago, but it might as well have been another epoch: In early May, the L.A. Times Opinion section asked readers to envision life in California after the pandemic and share with us their thoughts on what the COVID-19 health and economic crisis reveals about us as a society, and what transformations may be necessary to heal the trauma.
And respond our readers did — more than 3,700 of you. With such a large volume of responses, the topics covered were diverse, but there were some areas of broad agreement among our readers — namely, that government should expand its role in healthcare and the economy to prevent a crisis such as COVID-19 from causing so much shock. Traffic, housing and the environment were also on the top of readers’ minds; Angelenos in particular expressed appreciation for clear air and clear freeways.
Before delving into the responses, there are two important qualifications to make: First, most of the letters, tweets and other messages were sent to us before George Floyd’s death on May 25, an event that set off weeks of protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Unrelated as Floyd’s death and the pandemic may seem, there is a clear through-line connecting readers’ initial concerns about healthcare and the economy to conversations about racism and inequality: Both relate to fundamental, long-standing questions about fairness, and how our institutions respond.
Second, when we put out the call for reader input, California was still under its initial stay-at-home order and appeared to be on a shorter road to recovery than New York, where emergency rooms were overrun and hundreds of people were dying each day from COVID-19. Almost three months later, the situation is considerably worse for California: Coronavirus case and death counts are surging, schools districts in Los Angeles and San Diego have announced the indefinite closure of their campuses, and the state is entering what’s been called “Lockdown 2.0.”
Dismaying as California’s lack of progress over many months might be, it makes the ideas and fears expressed by our readers in the early days of the pandemic freshly relevant today. If anything, the letters here serve as a sort of time capsule, giving us a sense of how we saw ourselves in California during a period that was only months ago, but by now feels like a different era.
What’s here is not at all an exhaustive accounting of the more than 3,700 responses sent to us, and our Data and Graphics team is assisting us in summarizing what readers said as part of our project to come. It does, however, reflect the depth of thought readers have given to reimagining life after the pandemic, and it shows how strongly so many of them care about California.
To learn more about our next steps for the Reimagine California project and ways you can continue to be involved, please read our project update. You can also tell us your thoughts on how California should change post-pandemic by taking our survey or emailing [email protected] with the subject line “Reimagine California.”
Hundreds of readers touched on a consistent theme: fairness. This letter from Dan Constant of Manhattan Beach advocates remaking much of our global order with that and compassion in mind:
Stay-at-home forced us to pause from our busy lives and contemplate society after the pandemic. Hopefully we will create a more productive and compassionate society.
Priority No. 1 is to return to civility. Rudeness and rage abound. This must change now.
The pandemic transcends borders, highlighting the perils of extreme nationalism. Lives are and will be at stake, and pandemic readiness needs to be addressed on a global level.
The pandemic has sped up the pace of an already changing economy. A more productive and equitable “Economy 2.0” requires the creation and support of more jobs linked to what we need: a healthy, affordable food supply, teachers blending in-person and online classes, affordable housing, a clean environment, accessible healthcare, more vocational training, more manufacturing and other high priorities. Too many careers and jobs are mismatched with what we need, adding to job insecurity (as we are now sadly witnessing).
Despite the unknown depth and duration of the COVID-19 recession, the business cycle will begin anew. Hopefully more civility, enhanced pandemic readiness and a vastly improved jobs landscape will follow. Let’s all do what we can.
More than 500 readers mentioned prioritizing action on climate change after the pandemic, a topic that dovetails with traffic, mentioned by more than 400 respondents. In her letter to the editor, Pamela Dawson of Goleta wove those two topics together with transforming the economy:
As terrifying as this virus is, the pause of our manmade world has allowed nature to take a breath. Animals and birds have ventured out. Our air is cleaner. There’s less noise from traffic. It’s fantastic!
I truly hope many companies realize not everyone has to commute to work. And, we don’t have to run to the store every single day to grab an item.
One important issue that needs to be addressed is high-speed Internet. The future of our economy may depend on it. The education of our young will certainly depend on it.
Also needing attention is healthcare. Let’s make an affordable system of healthcare for everyone and stop the price gouging.
Ann Bickerton of Los Angeles took a more localized look at transportation and, along with more than 400 other readers, discussed the structure of our neighborhoods:
We need more walkable, livable communities. As a renter in L.A., there is so little public space for me to enjoy. I would love to see more community gardens, micro-parks, protected bike lanes and events like CicLAvia that let us get out and enjoy our neighborhoods.
We also need more affordable housing. L.A. County has been facing a housing shortage for years, and we cannot wait to add the housing we need. With rising unemployment and homelessness, it’s clear that we can no longer let single-family homeowners and wealthy communities keep housing from being built. Housing is a human right, so let’s create policies that prioritize residents first.
We need walkable neighborhoods with enough density and mixed development that we can enjoy life as pedestrians. And, we need public transit to get between job centers.
Carolyn L. Baker of Los Angeles was among a handful of readers who wrote before George Floyd died to identify racism as causing many of the problems exacerbated by COVID-19:
Back in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson envisioned a “great society” and declared a “war on poverty,” the centerpiece of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which created an Office of Economic Opportunity to oversee a variety of community-based anti-poverty programs.
Yet at the same time, the regulatory practices, labor and wage policies and tax structure ensured the distinct winners and losers would remain perpetually the same. The irony of this was best described by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
Policy changes over the past 50-plus years have continually whittled away the social safety net. Racism and classism have broken the country’s social compact and stunted the development of nearly every institution crucial for a healthy society. This includes organized labor, public education, wage and hour standards and job-based health and retirement security. Racist power and racist policies must be confronted, named and dismantled.
By now you might get the impression that the preponderance of responses favored large-government, progressive solutions — and you’d be correct. A handful of readers did express contrary opinions, mainly displeasure with California’s political leadership and quality of life. Adam Ghiorso of Chico was one such reader:
I am from Butte County, where nearly 200,000 people were evacuated in 2017 due to a potential dam failure. There was also a fire that wiped out an entire town, and now we’re dealing with COVID-19.
Here is what I want to see: state government not beholden to a single party, and local leadership that is not inept. I want people who are paid a lot of money to do something. I want our infrastructure fixed. I want to be able to enjoy the park and my city without garbage and hypodermic needles littered everywhere.
Our state has been reduced to an overtaxed garbage dump, where people who should get punished don’t. Welcome to California, where the road to hell is paved with one party’s failed policies.
We’ll close with a prescient criticism of the L.A. Times that now feels like a warning. Santa Monica resident Lynn Balsamo sent us this letter on May 13:
In your request for reader contributions, your use of “after the pandemic” was unfortunate. You write as if the pandemic is ending; it is not. We are in the pandemic, and we’ll be in it for a long while. All that’s happening right now is certain restrictions are being eased.
The pandemic has brought to light that too many Americans are working for unfairly low wages and paltry benefits (if any). Our nation now has a chance to reset aspects of the economy, and it would be a shame not to use it to address this problem.