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Opinion: 2022 enters on a note of uncertainty

The virus still rages, inflation and crime are surging, and yet the economy is booming. Which way will the new year go?

Teresa Hui poses for a selfie in front of a 2022 sign displayed in Times Square, New York.
Teresa Hui poses for a selfie in front of a 2022 sign displayed in Times Square, New York, Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. Crowds will once again fill New York’s Times Square this New Year’s Eve, with proof of COVID-19 vaccination required for revelers who want to watch the ball drop in person, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week.
Seth Wenig, Associated Press

Americans find themselves in an odd situation as 2022 dawns.

The economy is doing well. In some states, such as Utah, it is doing remarkably well. As of November, Utah’s unemployment rate stood at 2.1%, its lowest on record. Nationally, the rate was 4.2%. A worker shortage has hit service industries hard, forcing higher wages.

Rather than a pandemic recession, the nation is experiencing a boom.

And yet, as the new year begins, the economy and everyday life continue to be stunted by the persistent presence of COVID-19. 2022 will be the third year affected by this.

People, at least in Utah, are beginning to think it may not end in the new year, either. A poll in November by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found 42% saying they expect the pandemic to last several more years.

That was the highest percentage of all possible responses. Only 6% thought it would end within six to 11 months.

They have reasons to be pessimistic. As the year begins, the omicron variant is spreading rapidly, filling hospitals that already were full of patients suffering from the delta variant. California has reinstated a mask mandate. The NFL, America’s most profitable and popular professional sports league, postponed key games in December due to illnesses.

This is not March of 2020, President Joe Biden assured Americans a few days ago. One major difference, he said, is that the world now has effective vaccines against COVID-19.

And yet, in some ways, it feels worse than 21 months ago.

Speaking of odd situations, many people refuse to get vaccinated. A jungle of misinformation and conspiracy theories has hampered the acceptance of these free shots, which provide most people with at least enough protection to make any contracted case of the virus mild.

Fear and distrust will not end on New Year’s Eve, and they are just as viral as the coronavirus, and just as deadly.

But the virus is being blamed for much more than sickness and death. It has disrupted supply chains worldwide, a phenomenon captured in photos of ships anchored off the California coast, some waiting months for the opportunity to dock and unload goods and parts. It has led to a surge in people working from home, an alternative so attractive it may have been one impetus behind a record-breaking percentage of people who decided in 2021 to leave their jobs rather than return to the office.

This yearlong phenomenon is called “the great resignation.” In April alone, 4 million people quit their employer, which was 2.7% of the nation’s workforce.

People don’t just up and quit unless opportunities are plentiful, so even this is an indication that the economy is robust, despite itself.

As 2022 comes, Americans are facing two things they haven’t seen in decades: inflation and a surging crime rate. In November, the year-over-year inflation rate for common goods was 6.9%, continuing a yearlong upward trend. It’s far worse in the housing market. Salt Lake County home prices jumped 27.8% during the year, according to Zillow. Meanwhile, in September the FBI reported a 30% jump in murders nationwide over the previous year, the largest such increase ever recorded.

Some economists say these are related. Higher prices breed thefts and violent crimes. Anecdotally, at least, the trend seems to be continuing into the new year, with reports of organized “smash and grab” thefts at major retailers in large cities.

So, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, Americans enter 2022 in the best of times and the worst of times. Call it a tale of two Americas. That balance seems capable of teetering in either direction, with an ominous, major midterm election looming large in November.

Ultimately, the future always depends on millions of little decisions made daily by millions of people. The fate of this new year, therefore, is in your hands.