When the pandemic began, Mark Finazzo was working in a Columbus, Ohio, beer brewery, a job he lost to lockdown measures that plunged him, like many Americans, into terrifying months of isolation, anxiety and helplessness, with little more to do than watch the coronavirus rage across the TV news.
Today Mr. Finazzo, 35, is in his first semester at Ohio State University. He is getting his second bachelor’s degree, this one in microbiology, hoping to become a research scientist — like the people striving to create a vaccine he watched and read about as he sat on his couch in the pandemic’s earliest, darkest days.
“When I saw footage of hospital tents being erected in Central Park, it was like, ‘Wow, life is fragile and precious,’” Mr. Finazzo said, referring to the field hospitals New York City mustered in the spring of 2020. “‘I should probably do something to help out besides make a delicious poison that we like to drink.’”
The virus’s toll cannot be overstated: It has stolen over 800,000 American lives, and millions globally. Efforts to thwart it have swept away livelihoods, altered childhoods, and left lasting emotional tolls. At the start of yet another year of Covid-19 in our midst, its latest variant rising, there is for many a sense of familiar foreboding.
But all along, in the valley of the shadow of the virus, there has been remarkable resilience. It can be seen in the lightning-fast creation of vaccines that have largely defanged Covid-19, and in recent findings that the methods used now may show promise in the fight against H.I.V. and AIDS. It is in every pivot made by a canny entrepreneur that saved a business, and each government agency that pushed innovative change during chaotic times.
And it is in individuals, like Mr. Finazzo, who in the face of seismic societal shifts have not shattered, but shifted too.
“The experience of the pandemic has shown we are more resilient than conventional wisdom would suggest,” said George A. Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Teachers College and author of “The End of Trauma,” a book about the psychology of human resilience.
And while many continue to grapple with grief and trauma, the key to resilient outcomes in the face of disaster is threefold, Dr. Bonanno said: First, distill exactly what is causing distress, then come up with a possible solution. Finally, remain flexible to find a new remedy if that doesn’t work.
“I see time and time again that people are resilient,” he said. “The pandemic has shown this in spades.”
In the field of medicine, the onslaught of the sick stretched thin hospitals and burned out many medical professionals. But it has also revolutionized some parts of the field, said Dr. Rita A. Manfredi, a clinical professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and a co-author of “The silver linings of COVID-19: Uplifting effects of the pandemic” in “Academic Emergency Medicine,” a medical journal.
One example: telemedicine, which officials greatly expanded permissions for during the pandemic, made getting care easier for many people, Dr. Manfredi said. It is likely here to stay.
“In any big tragedy, there is always a positive side,” Dr. Manfredi said. “The negative side is obvious, but there is always a positive side.”
The coronavirus vaccine itself, made under wartime conditions, may go on to fight other intractable diseases: A study published in December successfully used the same mRNA technology used by the coronavirus vaccine to reduce the infection risk of an H.I.V.-like virus in rhesus macaques — perhaps a glimmer of hope in the fight against AIDS.
“This is a promising new finding,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and co-author of the study, said in an interview.
“We are infinitely better off now than we were in 2020,” Dr. Fauci continued. “If this were 2020 and we had this kind of a surge of Omicron superimposed upon a Delta surge we would likely have had to shut down the entire country, because we would have no other tools to prevent the spread. Now, we feel we can continue to function as a society.”
He added: “Things will get better. It is not going to go on forever.”
For some people with disabilities, cultural shifts the pandemic forced, like flexible and remote work — for which they long advocated — have already improved their lives: The employment rate for disabled people is currently at an all-time high, though still profoundly below that of people without disabilities, according to the nonprofit Kessler Foundation, which tracks data that relates to people with disabilities.
For Jon Novick, who has achondroplastic dwarfism, office settings can be burdensome. Mr. Novick, 30, said his small stature is not accommodated by standard-issue chairs and desks. Because of his physique, he must get business-professional attire customized, often at an extra expense. In the fall, he got a new job at a Manhattan-based creative agency, but is able to work from his apartment in Astoria, Queens.
“I am living in a world that is not quite built for me,” Mr. Novick said. “My perfect office is my home.”
The benefit comes alongside frustration for many disabled people like him, that it took a pandemic to make something their community has long pushed for — and was frequently denied — into a norm.
“People with disabilities can contribute so much to the work force; we can contribute even more when the playing field is level,” Mr. Novick said.
Changed habits forced entire metropolises to change: To give residents of hard-hit New York City space to mingle at a social distance, in May 2020 the city’s Department of Transportation began temporarily closing streets to cars at over 250 locations. The program has faced criticism that the street closures create traffic and take away parking spaces. But for many, the open streets, as they are known, were a welcome new use for the city’s thousands of miles of pavement when they were cooped up at home. The program is now permanent.
On 120th Street in Harlem, Tressi Colon, a retired New York Police Department sergeant, helps oversee programming on the open street that includes al fresco community suppers and free lectures from neighbors who work in academia on topics like gentrification. “We were intentional that in the midst of this pandemic that something good will come out of it,” Ms. Colon said. “That was the key.”
Across many industries, necessity forced norms to change, often for the better. In the fashion world, where resale was once a synonym for used or unwanted clothing and unsold merchandise sometimes burned, the clogging of supply chains and growing conversation around sustainability caused some designers to reuse fabrics long abandoned on storeroom shelves.
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Burberry, for example, which before the pandemic got in trouble when it was revealed in 2018 that it incinerated approximately $37 million of unsold product, has now partnered with a luxury rental and resale platform to put its stamp of approval on older garments and accessories sourced from customers, rather than lose them to the secondhand market or let them be thrown away. For her spring 2022 collection, the French designer Marine Serre, a champion of upcycling, made old tabletop linens, toweling and even cutlery into neat suiting and jewelry that was one of the hits of Paris Fashion Week.
Book sales rose during the pandemic’s first year of lockdown, but today, even with schools open and more options for entertainment, reading habits seem to have stuck: From January to November 2021, sales of consumer books increased 13 percent over the same period the year before, according to the Association of American Publishers. At least 172 new independent bookstores opened in 2021, the American Booksellers Association said.
When Jason Innocent was furloughed from his job as a restaurant kitchen manger, he began to read for pleasure for the first time in his adult life, powering through “1984,” “Macbeth,” “A Raisin in the Sun” and more. Now back at work, he kept the habit — plus practicing new words he reads. A few days before the New Year, Mr. Innocent, 26, stood in a line in downtown Manhattan waiting for a coronavirus test, studying vocabulary.
“A lot of people, the pandemic made them upset, but I took a bad situation and turned it into a positive,” Mr. Innocent said, flicking through his vocabulary list. “Even if another shutdown happened, I’m going to find a way to survive.”
After watching a television segment on new technology to sterilize N95 masks to combat a national shortage, Mr. Finazzo, the former brewery worker, applied for a job with the company. The satisfaction of helping out cemented his growing interest in a career in science.
“I was thinking to myself: Would I want to go and tell my kids or grandkids that I survived the Covid pandemic of 2020 by sitting alone in my apartment getting drunk?” Mr. Finazzo said. “Or did I want to go and utilize this opportunity to be able to help people?”
Vanessa Friedman and Elizabeth A. Harris contributed reporting.