“2020 Isn’t Over”: Eric Klinenberg on Pandemics, Politics, and Solidarity

"What we needed was wisdom and clarity. What we got was chaos and confusion."

When I think 2020, I think blur: social unrest, economic turbulence, all amplified and fueled by a world-historical pandemic. As someone who teaches at a public health school, I’ve wondered for a while what a book that successfully captured that year would look like.

Eric Klinenberg’s 2020: One City, Seven People, and the Year Everything Changed is that book. It’s written with the critical distance we need to finally get our heads around it; the deep research to make it more than armchair analysis; and the ambitious sweep that brings fractured threads together. I suspect, for many, it’ll also be the first time they’ll revisit 2020 in a more systematic way. I had to put it down repeatedly to reflect upon a memory it brought up for me.

This could’ve just been a book of COVID charts, tables, and graphs, and there’s no shortage of quantitative factoids here. But to fully understand the pandemic and its social dynamics, you really need thick context around the numbers, too. That’s one way 2020 delivers, diving into COVID policy in half a dozen countries, social networks and community infrastructure in different locales, occupational protections, political movements and countermovements, mounting trust and distrust. There’s also a lot that’s not about the pandemic, including a chapter on protests over police brutality that shook the country that summer. (The book is called 2020, not COVID, and it’s a meaningful difference.)

But 2020 isn’t just macrolevel context, either. In his other works, Klinenberg has always been interested in people and their places. Here, he profiles and analyzes seven New Yorkers in-depth, including a transit worker, an elementary school principal, a bar manager, and others. They each draw out something unique about both the 2020 experience and the neighborhoods and boroughs where they live. They’re what ultimately give the book its human pulse and emotional resonance.

I spoke to Klinenberg about putting the book together, what’s right and wrong about the ways people have conventionally thought about the pandemic, and what he wants readers (in high places and otherwise) to take from it.


Merlin Chowkwanyun (MC): I wanted to start by talking a little about craft. You write about this fellow named Daniel Presti. He’s from Staten Island and had the misfortune of opening up a bar right at the onset of the pandemic, and he starts out relatively apolitical. But, as more and more restrictions are imposed on him in 2020, on small businesses like his, he starts to become more and more explicitly political. Not only does he start vocally opposing COVID mitigation, he starts flouting it. It all increasingly feels MAGA-ish. And then he cuts off contact with you.

How does someone like you approach rendering someone like him? That was a part of the book that hit me hard emotionally, in a way that I didn’t expect. At that time, people like him were attacking my profession, public health, and my colleagues, and so if I were rendering him, I know how hard it would be to restrain myself. But we don’t want a one-dimensional caricature, either, so how do you actually craft an empathetic portrait of someone like him?

 

Eric Klinenberg (EK): I first encountered the story of Daniel Presti on social media. I saw some tweet about these “meatheads in Staten Island” who declared their bar an autonomous zone, and refused to follow the law. The government said they had to shut down the bar; they wouldn’t. That act wound up attracting hundreds of Far-Right activists to Staten Island, where they rallied against public health measures in 2020. Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity put Presti on their shows.

At the time I was deeply concerned about America’s failure to contain the virus, and the arrogance of federal leaders, including the president, who rejected the prevailing epidemiological knowledge and medical science and asserted a set of different beliefs. And here was a whole scene in my city of people who were doing exactly that. I thought I knew what the story was, and I was disgusted. But then I also realized that I had better pause and see if there was more to the story. As a sociologist, my job was not to issue judgment; it was to understand.

I should take a step back and say the strategy for my book was to follow a person from each of New York City’s five boroughs through the year 2020. When I finished that, I realized I had missed the story of the Black Lives Matter protests and how they affected the city in 2020. The book is not just about the pandemic. It is about all the crises of 2020: the crisis of democracy, the protests, everything that was in the air at that time. So I included someone who got involved with the demonstrations. And I also realized that by following people through 2020, I missed profiling someone who died from COVID early in 2020. I found the story of a custodian in the  Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), got to know his son, and retold his story through him.

For each of these seven subjects, my goal was to search for someone whose experience somehow represented something fundamental about the experience of their borough during that year. Staten Island is by far the most conservative part of New York. It is the one place where there were pretty sustained protests from the Right against the public health initiatives that the city and state implemented. So, I reached out to Presti, and I sent a Facebook note to Mac’s Public House, his bar. He responded to me via Facebook, and then we started up a conversation that helped me see him—and people in his situation—in a different light.

One of the goals of sociological research, especially more ethnographic research, is to try to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. I wanted readers to put themselves in the shoes of a person who is struggling to start a business, struggling to keep his family afloat, finding himself unable to make a living, not getting the support that he needs from the government. A person seeking someone who would stand up and rally to his defense and finds it on the Right. That happened to millions of Americans during the pandemic, as we know from what we’ve all lived through. And that is really Presti’s story.

Presti told me this remarkable thing. When he and his partner tried to open up their bar in 2019, it took the New York State Liquor Authority eleven months to give them a license to operate. You have got a state agency whose job is to help people start their business. We want to support people in small businesses, right? But it just takes forever to get your liquor license. Nearly a year! Why? They won’t say.

Then a few months after Presti’s bar opened, businesses get shut down because of COVID. Immediately, the state hires enormous numbers of people to fan out and make sure that everything is closed. From Presti’s perspective, he is thinking, You made me wait eleven months to start my business, because you didn’t have the personnel to just issue a license when everything was above board. But now you have tons of money to invest in hiring a team of surveillance operatives to make sure I close down? What is the government for? Why is closing me down so much more urgent than allowing me to be open when it’s safe?

Listen, it is imperative—for everyone who is concerned about the possibility of the extreme Right regaining power in the United States—to understand what is attracting people to that party, to those ideas. I wanted to portray what this year felt like for someone who felt abandoned, who felt undermined. I wanted people who read sociology to understand why someone in Presti’s position would turn to the Right for answers, and to consider whether he saw policy failures—including the lack of support for some businesses—that liberals refused to address.

I did have a colleague who read the chapter and said, I love this chapter, it was really absorbing, but you have to say at the end that you totally disagree with everything Presti does and that you condemn him! It almost seems as if you are sympathetic to him. And I said, Well, I’m definitely not going to do that.

If you’re a sociologist, you don’t interview someone in order to condemn them. You don’t do ethnographic research to judge. You do it to understand.


MC: People have used all kinds of terms and lenses to talk about COVID, sometimes in a hasty and unthinking way. Two of these are American exceptionalism and culture.

The US had an exceptional experience with COVID, but in the bad sense of the term: exceptional in the number of deaths, level of rancor over policies, etc.

A lot of people invoke American exceptionalism when they are talking about COVID with the notion of “culture.” By this, they mean American fidelity to strong notions of freedom, limited government incursion, rugged individualism, and so forth. And they use it to explain everything from why Daniel Presti reacted the way he did, to elevated antimask protests here, to all these other kinds of anti-COVID measure populism.

But you write, “Culture can predispose people to certain kinds of action, but the real challenge is to show why particular behaviors emerge at some times and places.” So, I wanted to ask you: How far does American culture get you—and how far does it not get you—as an explanation when it comes to American exceptionalism with COVID?

 

EK: We inherit a set of cultural tools for acting in the world; we develop a set of dispositions. Do Americans tend to be more individualistic than people in other countries? Yes. Do Americans have a skepticism of government and a reluctance to comply with orders from authorities? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that we will necessarily act on that, especially in a continuous situation of uncertainty.

Look at Australia. There’s another country on earth that sees itself as individualistic, risk-taking, adventurous, freedom loving, skeptical of authority, and even conservative or libertarian.

In the beginning of 2020, Australia is getting crushed by this series of bushfires, the worst in the nation’s history. It is a climate catastrophe. And the prime minister, Scott Morrison, is out there everywhere saying, Don’t call this is a climate event, this has nothing to do with climate change. Climate change is a theory; we don’t know that it is caused by human behavior. He is a conservative science skeptic, publicly. So you would think Australia is primed to have the same COVID experience that the United States has.

But instead, Morrison takes COVID seriously. He organizes a leadership group made up of the health leaders in every state in Australia, medical experts who have strong views informed by the research on how you can reduce the spread of the disease. He closes the borders. States impose stringent lockdown orders. The government subsidizes the production of PPE. They do a tremendous amount to try to prevent COVID from spreading. Eventually there were some protests, especially in the state of Victoria, which had the longest lockdowns.

But, for the most part, Australians comply. Despite the culture of hyperindividualism, they pull off this extraordinary public health campaign. In fact, Australia had negative excess deaths during 2020. In other words, fewer people died in 2020 in Australia than would die in a typical year!

Studies show that if the US had the same mortality rate in 2020 that Australia had, 900,000 people would have survived that year. 900,000 Americans.

So, yes, culture can matter. But culture doesn’t dictate that we act one way and not another way. So we have to seek out those other drivers of behavior.

Participating in hyperlocal projects like mutual aid networks is a foundation for developing social solidarity.

MC: For you, one of those drivers is MAGA-ism, which predated the pandemic. Culture is at play here, but it is not this kind of transhistorical, timeless series of generalities about the American mind. It is a very kind of historically specific thing that we are still navigating.

 

EK: Our political leadership failed. Trump’s magical thinking during 2020 is responsible for an enormous amount of death and suffering. In my first book, Heat Wave, I referred to the concept of murder by public policy. I think we could say the same about what happened in the US in 2020, for sure.

The specific political culture and the cultural responses in different parts of the United States to this year were very much structured by political leadership. (We have a lot of research showing the outsize role that political leaders play in shaping attitudes, values, beliefs, during times of uncertainty.) So if you have a novel health crisis—an unknown pathogen, with untold capacity to do damage, enormous uncertainty about the basic facts of the case—that is when you turn to your political leaders, people who have access to the best expertise available. Enormous numbers of people in this country trusted Trump, and enormous numbers of people distrusted Trump. What we needed was wisdom and clarity. What we got was chaos and confusion.

The fact that we have the political leadership we had in 2020 drove outcomes much more than our longstanding culture of individualism. The US experience was neither necessary nor natural. Really, it was a crisis that we made, a political disaster for which policymakers have real responsibility.


MC: You have this entire chapter about people who live by themselves during COVID, but it’s not the story many people might have expected of unrelenting depression and malaise. That leads you to rethink exactly what we mean by “loneliness.”

EK: During the pandemic, there was a lot of concern about what Ezra Klein called the social recession, and it was well founded. I remember listening to people talk about just how much loneliness and depression they saw. I thought that could be right, and so I designed a research project to investigate. I had a great graduate student, Jennifer Leigh, who did the interviews, and we started listening to people who were living alone. It was striking that people reported the feeling of physical loneliness: they missed the touch of others and they missed intimacy. They missed casual interactions with strangers in public settings, which are anchor experiences that root us in a place. But they didn’t report the classic feeling of emotional loneliness, in part because they were talking to their friends and family like they never did before. They were on video calls, they were on phone calls, they were sharing an experience with other people around them. They were physically alone, but not lonely.

Diagnostically, it is important for us to be able to distinguish between stress and anxiety on the one hand, and loneliness on the other hand, and I think we wound up getting worried about some of the wrong things that year. There is real reason to be concerned about the damage we did to our social tissue during 2020.

 

MC: Indeed, you introduce a new term here, “structural isolation,” to capture this. It’s this feeling of abandonment from the people in charge who are supposed to manage this crisis effectively and don’t.

 

EK: Yes! In my interviews with people who were living alone, the feeling that people articulated was what I call “structural isolation.” They were living in a country that was not providing them with the support they needed to get through this crisis. They felt like they were on their own.

What people kept saying is here we were in this incredible time of need, the threat was overwhelming, a lot of people didn’t have the resources to make it on their own. People didn’t have the information they needed to know how to act. In that moment, they longed for reliable authorities to explain the situation humanely, and they needed resources. Some needed meals. Some needed help keeping their businesses afloat, making sure their staff didn’t leave. Some needed good healthcare, finding pharmaceuticals that they couldn’t get. I think that a lot of the pain that Americans felt in 2020 was related to the pain that Americans feel all the time: the feeling of being on your own, having no one whose job is to take care of you and actually be able to do that job well. This is the sense of being structurally isolated. That is a different way of talking about isolation or loneliness than the way we conventionally talk about it, but I think it resonates with people’s experiences.


MC: In some of the most poignant parts of the book, you talk about social solidarity. If there is one governing frame for the book, it is social solidarity: what knits it together, what breaks the solidarity, and what furnishes it. You define it as “the bonds of mutual obligation and linked fate between people who share a neighborhood, city, or nation” and say it can be a crucial resource, but only if states and societies are capable of producing it.

One of the most compelling portraits is of a retired DA in Queens, Nuala O’Doherty. And she spearheads a mutual aid network that collects and redistributes essential items for people in Jackson Heights. A lot of Americans ended up doing similar things and setting up mutual aid networks in the face of government negligence, inefficacy, and inability to respond to immediate need.

Prior to COVID, I was always very skeptical of mutual aid. I worried about romanticizing it and people thinking it was a substitute for robust government safety net. But—with COVID, with the end of Roe, which has necessitated abortion funds—I get the model a lot more now. When government doesn’t show up or actively represses, mutual aid is often the only game in town. A lot of people could look at these failures of government and go in an anti-state direction from the Left or the Right.

But you don’t do that here. You’re very appreciative and admiring of mutual aid, but I don’t think you’re an anti-statist. What is the proper place of mutual aid in a vision of social solidarity?

 

EK: Like you, my concern about mutual aid and bottom-up social protection programs is that they cannot substitute for the welfare state. In fact, in the US, the welfare state emerged during the Great Depression precisely because local support networks were overwhelmed by local needs—the nation needed public programs to offer genuine protection. On the one hand, I remain concerned that if we romanticize the hyperlocal mutual aid network, we will undermine support for the state. The more we feel like the state is doomed to fail us, and the more we are distrustful of the state, the more we play into the libertarian fantasy, where the public programs dissolve and we are all on our own.

On the other hand, what we have learned in the pandemic is that when the government fails, as it unfortunately does sometimes, we have nothing but each other. In 2020, enormous numbers of Americans pitched in.

Mutual aid networks blossomed all over New York City—and across the country, too. Take Queens, one of the epicenters of the pandemic. Queens experienced an enormous crisis: lots of COVID, dire poverty, hunger, medical need, more death than the hospitals could manage. But when I walked through the neighborhood with Nuala, I got to see the ways in which people were taking care of each other. It was clear that hundreds of thousands of people in Queens made it through 2020 because of the mutual aid networks. They got food, they got diapers, they got access to cleaning supplies and over-the-counter medications: all the kinds of social support that were not available in other places.

Now, it is notable that the mutual aid networks really flourished in immigrant neighborhoods, in poor neighborhoods, in places that have probably practiced mutual aid at a lower scale for some time. And it is also notable that, however successful mutual aid programs were, they often required state intervention and funding over time. Even the most successful ones, including Nuala’s, ultimately harnessed state resources, because that is where the money is. One thing I learned is that participating in hyperlocal projects like mutual aid networks is a foundation for developing social solidarity. It’s not a thing we achieve simply by believing in certain ideas, subscribing to an ideology. Social solidarity is a practice and supporting each other is a building block.

In the book I argue crises reveal things and the point of examining 2020 is to see who we really are. In the US, much of what became visible is unflattering and worrisome. But there is also our extraordinary resourcefulness at the ground level, our collective capacity to take care of each other in these situations. It’s essential that we recognize and build on that, too.

Take Jackson Heights, one of the most hard-hit neighborhoods in Queens. By 2021, it was this neighborhood—which was so dense and crowded, with so much poverty and so little green space—that led one of the city’s most exciting efforts to open up the streets and create a play area for kids and for grown-ups. In New York City, “open streets” remade public life, and they lifted up a lot of people. They created opportunities for exactly the urban experience that the people who write the books on my urban sociology shelves long for. There is that very pragmatic part of me that wants that and that might be where the ray of hope toward the end comes from.


MC: Corona, Flushing, Elmhurst: on the surface, these neighborhoods in Queens have got a lot of demographic and socioeconomic similarity. But in your book, you zoom in on certain properties of Flushing that made that neighborhood do a little better on some of the COVID metrics. I’m asking this for my colleagues who sometimes fall into demography is destiny arguments: How might future investigators take account of places’ demographic characteristics, but also, as you do, weave in the additional context beyond it?

 

EK: I was struck again that there was this cluster of high death areas in Queens that, on some demographic measures, look quite similar on paper, but actually had really different experiences in some ways.

What distinguished some places from others is that an enormous number of Latinos in New York were so-called essential workers. In the US, of course, being called “essential” meant being treated as disposable. We pushed you to go to work, even if we didn’t have a way to protect you. And so in the early weeks of the pandemic—when there was a lot of disease and a high risk of transmission—a lot of the Latino workers in New York had no choice but to go out and work. They went on the subway, they worked in crowded workplaces, and they were just at much higher risk of contracting the disease.

What’s more, there were a lot of immigrant neighborhoods where Latinos were clustered—not in higher levels of neighborhood density, but with higher levels of residential crowding. You might remember that, in the beginning of the pandemic, pundits were saying that cities are over because density is dangerous. And one of the key findings here is that no, it wasn’t density, it was crowding that put people at risk. More precisely, it was the combination of living in a crowded residence and having one or more people in the unit participate in the essential labor force—during COVID, that was a formula for disaster. As it happens, the cluster of neighborhoods in Queens that experienced the biggest spike in COVID deaths and disease had exactly those conditions.

Flushing is a fascinating case for me because it is not far from Corona and Elmhurst, also with a very high immigrant population and some crowding. The striking thing about Flushing, though, is that the immigrants were more likely to be Asian American, and they were tied into social networks that got highly activated around the threat of coronavirus from an early stage in the crisis.

The SARS experience, in 2003, sensitized them to the importance of masks in preventing transmission of a virus. New York’s Asian American communities—Chinese American in particular, but also Korean American—were more serious about preventive behavior. For them, social networks, which can be a source of peril if there are people involved in dangerous work, became a source of protection. Why? Because they were connected to people, in Asia and in the US, who were taking extraordinary measures to stave off the disease.

For me, this suggests that epidemiologists and public health researchers should stop and think before plugging in the standard variables for research. If I could speak to your colleagues who think demography is destiny, the plea would be to bring in some sociological and anthropological collaborators to help you understand conditions on the ground, so that you might suggest other considerations that won’t appear in the standard data sets. That requires hard work, but it can lead to some incredibly powerful findings.


MC: I was part of the work-from-home class, and you were part of the work-from-home class. But even as difficult as COVID was, we were dependent on these essential workers you just talked about, people like the MTA worker that you profiled and others.

What do you want people like us to take away from the book?

 

EK: It’s quite striking that our essential workers are not the ones whose labor and time and lives are valued most. In fact, in some ways, they are valued least. During 2020, we came to the brink of this moral recognition: Hey, look at these people, we bang pots and pans at 7:00 p.m. when the health workers come out. One can imagine a story in which that was the beginning of a reconsideration of the way we treat the delivery workers and the clerks and the nurses and custodians in the MTA. We could say, Hey, when everything was on the line, we needed you, we forced you to go out and protect us while the rest of us were in our homes watching Netflix. And so now we are going to protect you, now we are going to reward you, now we will find new ways to compensate you in a sustainable way because we see that you are essential and we are not.

But we didn’t do that at all. We got to the moral precipice, looked out, and said, No, let’s just go back to the way things were. And so, it’s no surprise that here we are, with the same patterns.

Similarly, we asked young adults, people in their 20s: Leave college; your job is gone; your school is closed; stop going out at night dancing with each other, stop having fun and building your network and thinking about your future. You need to sacrifice these things not because your personal health is at risk, but because you play a role in protecting your parents and your grandparents and the older, more vulnerable people in society. It is a reasonable thing to ask of people in their 20s to act like that are a part of a community, but we have never actually articulated it that way. We just told them to stay home. Full stop.

And then, after we spent years asking them to make these sacrifices and they lost a lot and experienced all kinds of stress and anxiety and isolation, we didn’t say, Thank you for your service. We didn’t say, Here are the opportunities we are going to create for you. Biden has worked really hard to try to cancel student debt, but that wasn’t exactly in recognition of the sacrifices that young people made during the pandemic, and the conservatives on the Supreme Court blocked it. So, again, here’s an area where we have seen people make sacrifices to help us, and we haven’t really done much to reckon with what that means.

I don’t think that it is too late. There was a moment in the beginning of the pandemic where people were imagining all sorts of utopian possibilities. The end of neoliberalism! The revival of social solidarity! None of that has happened—at least not yet.

But I don’t think this crisis is over. We are still living inside of it. I mean, here we are in 2024. Trump versus Biden. Democracy is on the ballot. All of that. It’s like we’ve been on a four-year journey and found ourselves more or less right where we left. icon

Featured image: Photograph courtesy of Eric Klinenberg.