On this day one year ago, the coronavirus outbreak was formally declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

To say that we’ve all been mired in various levels of sheer hell since then would be an insulting understatement, not to mention the fact that—despite the rush of some states to hurl themselves into full-blown and politically motivated reopening—we are very much still living in the pandemic era.

Reflecting on the past year in a new interview with Savannah Guthrie for the Today show on Thursday morning, Dr. Anthony Fauci expressed cautious optimism about what lies ahead for the rest of 2021 while also noting the litany of failures that helped fuel the virus’ spread here in the U.S.

While the virus is “still very much circulating,” Dr. Fauci said there is indeed “light at the end of the tunnel” as the vaccine rollout continues.

“But we’ve got to keep putting our foot to the pedal when it comes to public health measures,” Dr. Fauci, the chief medical advisor to President Biden, said on Thursday. He also urged the public to “at a minimum” keep wearing masks, adding that it’s indeed “risky” for state leaders to insist on prematurely reopening.

Later, Dr. Fauci was asked what his reaction would have been if he had been told one year ago today that the U.S. would ultimately see more than half a million deaths due to the pandemic.

“Well, I have to tell you quite honestly, Savannah, it would have shocked me completely,” he said. “I mean, I knew we were in for trouble … I said it then, ‘we better be really careful.’ In fact, that day at a congressional hearing, I made the statement ‘things are gonna get much worse before they get better’ and that was at a congressional hearing a year ago today.”

Dr. Fauci, however, never imagined that “much worse” would come to mean so many deaths. 

Asked what went wrong, particularly earlier in the pandemic, Dr. Fauci explained that “a lot of things” contributed to the dire situation in the U.S. and the full extent of their damage will be studied historically for years to come.

“One of the things I keep harkening back to that you can’t run away from is that we had such divisiveness in our country that even simple, common-sense public health measures took on a political connotation … It wasn’t a pure public health approach,” he said. “It was really very much influenced by the divisiveness that we had in this country.”

During a virtual press conference on March 11 of last year, WHO officials detailed their decision to declare COVID-19 a pandemic.

“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly,” a rep said at the time. “It’s a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death … The challenge for many countries who are now dealing with large clusters or community transmission is not whether they can [control it]; it’s whether they will.” 

In short, did the U.S. promptly rise to the occasion and ensure that people had routine access to clear messaging and consistent actions of leading by example? Certainly not. But now, one year later, at least the existential exhaustion of it all feels like it’s starting to plateau.