Sunday, June 16, 2024

Cambridge’s annual Dance Party was Friday at City Hall. (Photo: Dan Eisner)

Cambridge didn’t have an official end to the pandemic, but if we had to choose an unofficial date, last Friday seems to be an excellent option. That evening, the city hosted its first Dance Party since 2019. The spirit and joie de vivre that the pandemic and government response took from us were in full force, and good vibes stretched for blocks. Nary a mask could be seen. People were living their best life.

It’s tempting to want to put the pandemic and everything associated with it in the rearview mirror. Those years sucked. The economy didn’t shrink for a sustained period, but we lived through a depression. Enjoying the happier times that are upon us is far more appealing than grappling with the mistakes our city’s government made and critiquing the ways our community reacted. Revisiting those bleak years is an unpleasant prospect, but it’s an exercise we must undertake.

The pandemic was a monumental event. It shook the foundations of society, altered our lives permanently and left behind a wake of trauma that many are struggling to address. Even though the pandemic is over, its impacts, along with the effects of the policy response, are still felt and will continue to be felt for years to come, if not decades. The actions that were taken will inform the response to future pandemics. It would be irresponsible to not conduct a postmortem.

Our leaders should convene a commission that solicits input from a variety of experts and community members across the city, from infectious disease specialists to elementary school teachers and humanities professors; from public health professionals to business owners and residents. A broad range of perspectives and opinions should be sought and welcomed. Successes and failures would be discussed. The pandemic and the policy response touched each and every one of us in profound ways, and we ought to have a thorough understanding of what we did, how we were affected and what we should do differently in the future.

The city government typically requires a great deal of public engagement before doing anything significant. Community meetings for building a two-mile bike path can go on for years. Yet we had none of that before the rash decision to upend society was made. Even if you believe it was necessary, the government response was nevertheless unprecedented and shocking. The city should engage with the public on pandemic preparedness so we won’t be caught so flat-footed next time.

Even though it’s impossible to disentangle our local Covid response from the state and federal response, we still need to have this conversation. Other nations, such as the United Kingdom, have launched Covid inquiries, and our federal and state governments need to do the same. But Cambridge shouldn’t wait for Washington and Beacon Hill to act. There is plenty to discuss, and it could spur action at other levels of government.

Recently, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said that “if something like this happens again, we will be much more prepared.” What exactly does that mean? What will the government do next time? What successes will it repeat? What mistakes will it avoid? Our community should be included in determining the answers to those questions.