Press "Enter" to skip to content

‘Are you better off today than four years ago?’ is the wrong question

“Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Roundly criticized for its blatant revisionism, House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik’s (R-N.Y.) question last month had an unintended consequence: It finally pushed the COVID-19 pandemic to the forefront of the 2024 presidential campaign’s rhetoric.  

The Biden campaign’s eventual response, a video ad featuring a montage of body bags, refrigerated trucks and Trump proffering his disinfectant cure, was effective in its shock value but left the collective trauma facing our nation largely unaddressed.  

Stefanik’s question — and the answers it elicited — lack nuance. For most Americans, the honest response is neither yes nor no. A more productive question for us all to ask would be: How are you different now?  

As an anthropologist leading a five-year study on COVID death, memory and mourning, and a writer and editor who created a website and book to gather stories of pandemic loss, we speak regularly with the COVID bereaved. We also hear from many others, such as health care and frontline workers — people who will feel the pandemic’s echoes for the rest of their lives. We teach students whose formative years of learning took place in conditions of extreme social and physical isolation.  

Their experiences tell us that people are different — profoundly different — four years on, and we as a society need to make room for more nuanced and compassionate conversations about the pandemic’s effects, including in our halls of government and on the campaign trail. 

The day after Stefanik’s misguided query and the same evening as the State of the Union address, we joined a gathering of volunteers at artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s studio in Bethesda, Md., to witness the archival caretaking of the “In America: Remember” installation — the 700,000-plus white flags planted on the National Mall in the fall of 2021 to honor those we’d lost to the pandemic. 

No one there was asking if they were better off than four years ago. Instead, the volunteers, many of whom had lost loved ones to COVID, expressed bittersweet delight at seeing one another again. The dominant motif was gratitude. Everyone felt grateful to be in an environment where they knew their grief, sharp memories and ongoing concerns were understood instinctively. There was space to acknowledge how the pandemic had changed them. 

“How are you different now?” may sound like a politically dubious query, but look at what Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) enacted, in the same high-stakes week as Super Tuesday, Stefanik’s question and the State of the Union. He issued a proclamation declaring a state-wide Day of Compassion, to be repeated yearly on March 6, the anniversary of the first documented case of COVID in the commonwealth. 

The Day of Compassion remembers the more than 19,000 Kentuckians lost to COVID, but within the proclamation, and at the ceremony held that day, the emphasis is on honoring “healthcare workers, first responders, educators, farmers, grocery and restaurant workers,” as well as those who “helped get us through this fight of our lives” with deep compassion.  

The proclamation extends Beshear’s public health leadership throughout the darkest days of COVID. Despite protests and political pressures within the state, his administration always centered on saving lives, not red/blue divisions. This nonpartisan approach was key in his successful reelection this past November.  

Encouraging contemplation and compassion isn’t just a political act. It’s a necessary world we need to build together. We saw a small-scale example of just that effort in late March when we traveled to the annual lighting ceremony at Rami’s Heart COVID-19 Memorial in Wall, NJ. 

Created by Rima Samman Whitaker, who lost her brother Rami to COVID in May 2020, the memorial began as a simple gesture of remembrance — a few rocks and shells placed on a beach in Belmar — but soon grew into a space of national mourning.  

At the lighting ceremony, Whitaker stood before a crowd who had braved the torrential rain of an early spring nor’easter and spoke of what she had come to understand about the pandemic’s toll and how it has transformed her. 

“No matter how much time passes, and the world moves forward, nothing will ever be the same for us,” she said.  

No one that afternoon dissected the economy or national malaise. Rather, we spoke the language of loss as well as community. We looked a few yards away to the place Whitaker lovingly curates, its thousands of inscribed stones resting in clamshell-bordered hearts, and despite the gale winds, the memorial exuded a sense of peace. The souls we lost are sheltered there, their memories honored. 

Are you different now? We are.  

Martha Greenwald is the director of The WhoWeLost Project and the editor of “Who We Lost: A Portable COVID Memorial.” Sarah Wagner is a professor of anthropology at the George Washington University whose research has focused on COVID-19 and remembrance since 2020.

We use cookies to ensure that we provide you with the best experience. If you continue using our website, we will assume that you are happy about that.
Optimized by Optimole