At the start of 2020, few people foresaw the challenges that the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, would create across the globe. But in a matter of two months, the pandemic eclipsed all other expectations for 2020, including the forthcoming election, in the minds of most Americans. The United States has since dealt with one of the greatest political, social, and economic challenges the country has faced since the Great Depression. 

In January, the first U.S. case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, was documented in Washington State. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced a global health emergency on January 30 due to the rapid transmission of COVID-19 within Asia and to Europe and North America from the Chinese city of Wuhan. The Trump Administration restricted global air travel from China and declared a public health emergency on January 31. On March 11, the WHO classified COVID-19 as a pandemic, and the Trump Administration declared a state of emergency on March 13. Coronavirus-related queries topped Google searches in the U.S.1          

Americans quickly changed most business activities, travel, worship services, sporting events, social gatherings, restaurant visits, entertainment outings, and other activities, producing devastating economic consequences. Advised by public health experts who relied on models that predicted rapid transmission and mass causalities, federal, state, and local government leaders soon issued a variety of public health tactics and emergency orders to preserve hospital capacity and “flatten the curve” of the pandemic. Governors used emergency powers to restrict or, in many cases, halt in-person business and activities deemed nonessential, such that by April 6, 42 states had issued “stay-at-home” orders. 

Congress responded by passing recovery packages totaling $4 trillion in allowable aid through federal loans, grants, unemployment insurance, and stimulus checks. Federal and state bureaucracies attempted to ease regulatory requirements that could slow down the development of tests and vaccines, unleash private-sector production of essential equipment, enlarge federal stockpiles of ventilators and personal protective equipment, and disburse hundreds of billions in aid. The Federal Reserve employed unprecedented power to make $7.1 trillion available through emergency purchases and lending.2

The landscape of American society and politics took such a sharp turn as to be almost unrecognizable. 

Taking Account 

Our understanding of the virus has progressed as has its impact on both the lives and livelihoods of Americans. The initial projections of deaths from COVID-19 from expert epidemiological models ranged from lows in the hundreds of thousands to upwards of two million American lives.3 Refined estimates have evolved as experts have acquired better data and learned more about the virus and infection fatality rates, and as mitigation measures have been incorporated; 8.2 million have contracted COVID-19 in the U.S. as of this writing, and 209,199 Americans have succumbed to the virus.4 While those between the ages of 18 and 64 experienced the vast majority of cases thus far (76 percent), 79 percent of all deaths were among Americans 65 years or older.5

Just as COVID-19 has impacted age demographics differently, it has also had divergent impacts across states and counties. Throughout the pandemic, cases and deaths have remained highly concentrated in a handful of counties in the northeast corridor between Philadelphia and Boston. Nearly two-thirds of all counties have experienced 10 or fewer deaths related to COVID-19. The New York City metro area accounts for a quarter of all COVID-19-related deaths in the U.S. and reports the country’s highest population-adjusted death rates of 2,196 per million, almost twice that of the next nearest (Detroit, 1,177).6

Wreaking another kind of havoc, the livelihoods of millions of Americans have also been deeply disrupted. The U.S. economy shrank at a 31.7 percent annualized pace between April and June.7 After historically low unemployment of 3.5 percent in February, unemployment skyrocketed to 14.7 percent by April, tapering down to 7.9 percent by September as states and businesses began to reintroduce modified economic activity. While falling rates mark encouraging progress, 12.6 million people are still unemployed.8 Some businesses have shuttered their doors permanently, and others remain uncertain if they will be able to stay afloat.

In an effort to provide stopgap economic support, Congress disbursed $350 billion in federal unemployment benefits through August.9 To assist other countries in dealing with COVID-19, the U.S. has committed more than $1.6 billion in emergency health, humanitarian, and economic assistance to governments, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations.10 The Treasury Department has borrowed at unprecedented levels to pay for the largest recovery package by Congress in history and set new monthly deficit records, with the fiscal year deficit totaling $3 trillion by the end of August.11 Credit rating firm Fitch Ratings downgraded the U.S. federal fiscal health outlook in July from stable to negative.12 Tens of billions in federal aid have already been lost to waste and abuse, and federal aid often proved difficult to access for those who most needed it. 

Perhaps encapsulating much of the crisis and uncertainty at hand, a major national discussion also unfolded around federalism and the roles of citizens, civil society, and federal, state, and local governments in responding to the crisis as defined in America’s Founding. What is the role of the Governor in a national emergency and where does the authority of a President or Congress end? Who should be held accountable for what? How can and should individual liberty be protected? Debate over the identity and wisdom of America’s Founding dove deeper yet as many Americans peacefully protested for racial justice in May, only to be overshadowed by anti-American rioters seeking to tear down cities, states, and, ultimately, the country.

Where Do We Go from Here? A Baseline and a Guide  

What many Americans hoped would be only a month of focused effort to combat the virus has consumed the better part of 2020 as the pandemic persists. By now, the world has learned more about the virus, and Americans can see some of the results or unintended consequences of the varied policy responses by leaders across the many states, as well as how other countries have responded. 

The pages that follow are a compendium of lessons learned and proposals to move forward compiled by researchers at The Heritage Foundation. This work spans the scope of the pandemic, offering analysis and solutions on public health policy and growing knowledge of the virus, to issues such as education, the Federal Reserve, international trade, foreign policy, food security, and identity politics, among many other relevant topics. Intended to be a “one-stop shop,” policymakers will find a guide in these resources, which remain all too relevant as the pandemic evolves, friction between governance and individual liberty persists, and changes are being made now to better prepare for the next crisis, whatever it may be. The immediate crisis may have been mitigated, but the path forward is still wrought with challenges and open for opportunity. 

This compendium can also be a useful baseline for evaluating leadership according to the knowledge of the virus at the time. Such evaluation and accountability are not only productive for problem solving as we continue to deal with COVID-19—states, metropolitan areas, and countries had varied responses to the virus thus far, from which we can glean productive responses for the future. But evaluation and accountability are also important for the longer-term health of our country. As aptly stated by the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission: 

Too many of our political, cultural, and media leaders have sought to exploit and hype the pandemic in service of their own agenda. In some cases, even science and medicine—where facts, data, and objective truth are fundamental to its very existence and purpose—have become casualties to surrogate truths. Far too often, stay-at-home leaders have hidden behind stay-at-home orders. Our representative democracy depends on trust and the confidence that trust produces. Both have been eroded. Crisis on top of cultural decline have severely compromised the relationship between government and the citizen. 


It is the American citizen who employs their representatives who, for a time, are entrusted to faithfully execute their will—not the other way around. As such, we must demand leadership that is accountable to its citizens, work to restore or build trustworthy institutions, strengthen the family, and create the conditions necessary for civil society to flourish that, together with personal responsibility, will be essential to our recovery and prosperity.13 

Far different from petty finger-pointing, the baseline of accountability offered here is about driving toward real solutions in the face of the pandemic, identifying mistakes, rewarding effective leaders, holding others accountable, and taking seriously the role of citizens in decision-making. 

In that sense, the challenge ahead for the experiment of self-government is just as challenging as the extent of the current crisis behind us. The resources in this compendium—which aim to rise above politics and offer solutions for all Americans—can be a useful guide to that end. 


  1. Google Trends, “Coronavirus Search Trends,” (accessed August 4, 2020). 
  2. Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, COVID Money Tracker, updated October 5, 2020, (accessed October 6, 2020).
  3. Kevin D. Dayaratna, “Failures of an Influential COVID-19 Model Used to Justify Lockdowns,” The Daily Signal, May 18, 2020,
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “United States COVID-19 Cases and Deaths by State,” CDC COVID Data Tracker, as of October 21, (accessed October 22, 2020).
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Demographic Trends of COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in the US Reported to CDC,” CDC COVID Data Tracker, as of October 21, (accessed October 22, 2020). 
  6. As of August 22. Doug Badger and Norbert J. Michel, “COVID-19: Still a New York Story,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3532, September 17, 2020,
  7. Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Gross Domestic Product, 2nd Quarter 2020 (Second Estimate); Corporate Profits, 2nd Quarter 2020 (Preliminary Estimate),” U.S. Department of Commerce, August 27, 2020, (accessed September 2, 2020).
  8. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The Unemployment Situation–September 2020,” October 2, 2020, (accessed October 22, 2020). 
  9. Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, COVID Response Interactive Table, (accessed August 10, 2020).  
  10. U.S. State Department, “The United States Continues to Lead the Global Response to COVID-19,” Fact Sheet, August 21, 2020, (accessed September 2, 2020).
  11. U.S. Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Fiscal Service, “Monthly Treasury Statement: Receipts and Outlays of the United States Government For Fiscal Year 2020 Through August 31, 2020, and Other Periods,” (accessed October 6, 2020). 
  12. Fitch Ratings, “Fitch Revises United States’ Outlook to Negative; Affirms at ‘AAA,’” July 31, 2020, (accessed August 10, 2020). 
  13. National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, Saving Lives and Livelihoods: Recommendations for Recovery, June 15, 2020, p. 5, (accessed September 29, 2020).


COVID-19: Lessons Learned and Path Ahead