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Reimagining the New Normal Offers Opportunities to Do Better

We have arrived at a strange point in the pandemic. It’s too soon to talk about fully reopening the economy, but it’s exactly the right time to dream big about how to come back better than we were before.

Most Colorado counties have eased their lockdown orders. But life is still far from normal. Google’s analysis of cell phone movements shows Coloradans visited stores about a third less than before the pandemic and workplaces about a quarter less last week. Face masks are required in some stores and strongly encouraged everywhere else outside the home.

At the Colorado Health Institute (CHI), we have the luxury of being able to work from home, and we’ve been doing so for nine weeks. It will not be until the end of the month until we even think about a small part of our workforce going back to the office. We are expecting that life won’t fully return to “normal” any time this year.

And even when this virus is finally vanquished, there will be lasting changes in our culture and economy. Some of those changes could be for the better.

The pandemic has laid bare inequities that have lingered for generations. This is a virus that was initially spread by people of relative affluence — those with the means to travel internationally. But the consequences are disproportionately borne by people with lower incomes, who have less access to quality medical care, and are more likely to live in areas with poor air quality — and research shows that air pollution makes COVID-19 outcomes worse.

Schools closed their buildings for the year and turned to online instruction, but that puts many families at a disadvantage if they lack good internet connections or if parents don’t have the time to work and serve as a de facto teacher’s aide every day. Others families are under stress because of shrinking options for child care — which was already difficult to arrange before the pandemic.

Going back to normal doesn’t have to mean going back to these inequities. Now is the time to start thinking about how to change old habits. For example, stay-at-home orders brought the unexpected benefit of clean air. Could we replicate the effect — without the economic damage — through policies that encourage telecommuting, electric cars, and cleaner energy sources?

Economic Changes Will Be Profound

The past week also brought news of other long-lasting changes in the economy.

First, the legislature’s revenue forecast, released May 12, projected a $3.3 billion shortfall for the state budget from now through June 2021. For perspective, that’s about a quarter of the state General Fund, which pays for core state functions like education, health care, human services, and public safety.

We will hear a lot more about the state budget in the coming weeks — and, let’s face it, years. No legislator has faced a financial disaster on this scale.

However, the damage is being partially mitigated by action Congress has taken already. Colorado’s state and local governments can expect about $2 billion from the CARES Act, according to the governor’s budget office. And the U.S. House of Representatives is proposing another stimulus bill that would include even more aid for cities and states, although the Senate is balking.

Second, state Medicaid officials are predicting more than half a million new members by the end of the year. CHI is researching the effects of this surge on people and hospitals. The New York Times today looked at how the Medicaid surge is upending the business model of hospitals, which was built around high prices charged to patients with private health coverage.

So much of daily life feels out of control right now, driven by the fact that a new virus is circulating, and humans don’t yet have the antibodies to fight it off. But we have more control over what comes next — what we expect from our federal and state governments, how we run our hospitals, how we treat those who have unfairly suffered not just during the COVID-19 crisis, but for generations before.

There’s no better time than today to start deciding what we want “normal” to be tomorrow.

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