Imagining Life after COVID-19
With uncertainty reigning in the time of COVID-19, people around the world are wondering about the potential medium- and long-term impacts of the pandemic on their lives. What will be the economic, political, and social implications of the coronavirus? What new technologies and medical breakthroughs will emerge out of the pandemic? Will online forms of education become the new norm? What lasting effects will the virus have on our personal and professional lives? To address some of these questions, the Center for Science and Society reached out to Columbia University experts from different disciplines to ask them to imagine what life will be like in the next 6-12 months, with or without a vaccine. Reflected in the paragraphs below are opinions from Columbia faculty members in economics, political science, sociomedical sciences, and history.
David Rosner is the Ronald H. Lauterstein Professor of Sociomedical Sciences and Professor of History; Co-director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health, Mailman School of Public Health. He is also a member of the Center for Science and Society Steering Committee.
The COVID-19 pandemic has alerted us once again to one of the fundamental laws of public health: that the poor and minorities inevitably bear the brunt of disease. The yawning mortality data tell us this story over and over again. African Americans historically are sicker, more disabled and die younger than white and especially middle and upper class Americans. Generally, we ignore this historical correlation between the health of the rich and the poor, a reality that Frederick Engels pointed to as an obvious condemnation of capitalist production, by explaining it away with more benign, veiled racist assumptions of constitutional, biological or genetic differences. A benefit?: New “targeted” therapies for observed differences in blood pressure readings, heart disease, or even cancers have led to entirely new industries aiming to make a profit.
But the pandemic has stripped away some of the statistical veneer of these explanations. We now see the vulnerabilities of those we depend on to do the work as issues we have to address if our garbage is to be picked up, if our mail is to arrive on time, if our food is to be delivered, if our busses continue to run, if our meat is to be chopped into bits in Midwestern factories. Now we see that “essential workers” need some acknowledgment of their increased risk and high death rates. We pass emergency legislation to extend benefits; we celebrate our “essential workers” by banging pans out our windows at 7 pm; we thank them on television for risking their lives.
But, if history is any guide, and if the protests that have ripped away some of the scabs of racism are controlled, the immediate concern for their well-being will soon fade and we’ll once again go back to a more complacent world. Public health officials will benignly observe the “inequities” in population statistics and “health outcomes;” the general population will fall back on historically racist arguments about poor people, their bad habits and their lousy lifestyles; politicians will talk about budget crises and our “inability” to pay for better housing, better, schools and better nutrition. In other words, we’ll go back to our normal apathy, unless enough noise is made.
We already see the pieces of the return to normalcy being put in place by the Trump administration as it bemoans the violence that’s accompanied the death of George Floyd; we see it in the statements from President Trump as he speaks, with little sign of real concern about the human “cost” of getting the economy back to “normal.” “Will some people be affected badly?” he asked rhetorically when “only” 72,000 people had died. “Yes,” he answered. “But we have to get our country open.”1 We see it in economists’ arguments about the cost of human life. Deaths will be necessary. And “some” will have to be disproportionately sacrificed. Economists are even calculating the “value of a statistical life” ( VSL=Extra Wages/Extra Risk, for those of you interested).2
There is a possibility that we may finally address some of the age-old ramifications of our racist past. We may address the obvious disparity in income; the lack of housing; the polluted world; the perennially higher unemployment and low wages; the crowding and poverty we force people to live in. We may. But, I worry that is just a pipe dream. I predict we’ll tell everyone to wear masks and go back to “normal.”
 Ari Shapiro, NPR, “ President Wants to Reopen Economy despite CDC Warnings,” May 6, 2020, Available at: https://www.npr.org/2020/05/06/851631806/president-trump-wants-to-reopen-economy-despite-cdc-warnings, Accessed, May 28, 2020.
 Quentin Fottrell, “Will Some People Be Affected Badly” Yes.’ As Trump says U.S. Must Reopen Soon, Question Hangs in the Air: Can the Economy Be Saves Without Sacrificing Lives?” Marketwatch, May 6, 2020, Available at: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/how-do-you-choose-between-economic-deaths-of-despair-and-coronavirus-victims-economists-lawmakers-grapple-with-a-moral-conundrum-2020-03-26, Accessed: June 1, 2020.
Kavita Sivaramakrishnan is an Associate Professor of Sociomedical Sciences, Mailman School of Public Health. She is also a member of the Center for Science and Society Steering Committee and Co-Leader of the Global Histories of Science Research Cluster.
In my view, epidemics do not begin and end in neat and decisive ways for everyone in society. As a historian of global health history, I have learned that we need to address what are ‘endemic’ aspects of threats and risks from infectious disease outbreaks and the social vulnerabilities and marginalization that they reveal, without looking for a life transformed and set right by magic bullet vaccines and heroic biomedicine.
COVID-19 has shown us that decades of biosecurity anxieties and ambitious health preparedness still leave us vulnerable. The current approach is faulty, as the US and other nations have been looking for a virus ‘attack’ from the global arena, most likely from ‘other’ deprived parts of the world. However, the next 6-12 months will see a growing awareness that it is the local and national health services and systems that are depleted in most societies with entrenched neoliberal, free market ideologies -- ideologies which have been universally accepted and aspired to all over the world. The real question is whether this will result in a consolidation of narrow, national self-interest seeking to monopolize drugs and relief, especially among advanced, industrialized societies. Or alternatively, due to public and economic pressures, could it lead to vital steps towards a global health order that is far more transparent and accountable: a global health infrastructure that is responsive to not only the needs and fears of the biggest donors and philanthropies and to the priorities set by a handful of experts. Instead, could we see global health institutions and collaborations address the persistent ills and lived conditions of globalization that have existed prior to and persist after epidemics have risen and ebbed? I realize that this is not a clear prediction, but pandemics are times of flux and it is hard to predict life ahead with certainty.
Ester Fuchs is a Professor of Public and International Affairs and Political Science.
There seems to be a contest going on among journalists and commentators as to who can come up with the most depressing and harrowing vision of life in New York City as we emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown. Everything that defines our city seems threatened by this virus. Whether it is our packed subways, jobs that depend on face to face engagement, open office plans where desks are connected and the person in the next chair is less than two feet away, overcrowded bars, cafes and restaurants where the crowds are the reason you eat there, massive stadiums for sporting events and concerts, startups in shared space, live theater, apartments where four young people crowd into a two-bedroom; it all seems incompatible with social distancing and staying healthy in post-pandemic New York.
As the city comes back to life, I expect that many will find it too difficult to live here or simply not worth the effort. It will be a wrenching and difficult economic transition, especially for the poor, unemployed, and owners of small businesses. And as with past crises, the poor and the immigrants will stay and the real estate market will finally experience a long overdue correction, rents will fall and space will open up so that strivers, artists, entrepreneurs, dreamers and young families will find a place for themselves in every city neighborhood. New Yorkers will elect a new mayor, capable of making difficult political decisions with a deep understanding of how to manage in the public interest. There is really no alternative for New York than to once again reinvent itself. And those who choose to stay will know why they are here and what they must do; and those who come to pursue the New York City dream, like generations before them will find it.
Alessandra Casella is a Professor of Economics and Political Science. She also serves as a member of the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience Advisory Committee.
The epidemic has forced us to reorganize our way of working. One lesson that will remain is the ease of seminars and conferences held by video: eliminating travel makes participation close to costless, as both audience and speaker; the short time commitment makes it easy to attract experts. But the epidemic has not been the only event shattering old ways of being. In the last two weeks, the protests in support of Black Lives Matter show that people of all races and walks of life recognize the racism under which women and men of color continue to live. One aspect of such racism is evident in the greatly disproportionate incarceration rates and in the difficulty of reintroducing in society individuals who have served their sentence.
Our new proficiency with remote learning could play a role in improving life in and after prison. Several of our students and colleagues already teach in prisons through Columbia's Justice in Education Initiative - and more honor to them. The University can grab the opportunity to strengthen education programs for incarcerated people by utilizing the potential of remote learning. Although less effective than in-person classes, remote courses would be cheap to offer and could cover a much wider curriculum than currently possible. The programs would come with the university seal, and thus with a guarantee of minimal quality and with the university's authority and visibility; they could be at different levels and offer different degrees; participation could be encouraged by the prison system. It would be a concrete step accompanying our words.
Michael Woodford is the John Bates Clark Professor of Political Economy. He also serves as a member of the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience Advisory Committee.
How will the US economy be different after the COVID-19 crisis? It is very hard to guess, given the unprecedented nature of the cataclysm we are living through. If economic activity were determined simply by the availability of productive resources and the technical know-how to put them to use, there would be little reason to expect lasting effects at all, once the virus itself has been conquered.
In the case of the Black Death of the 14th century, a substantial fraction of Europe’s population died, resulting in severe labor shortages after the plague had passed; these significantly affected relations between workers and landowners, and may well have hastened the decline of the feudal system. Major wars have often destroyed large amounts of physical capital, resulting in increased opportunities for productive investment in the period of reconstruction that follows the end of hostilities. The current crisis is unlikely to have either of these effects. While the loss of life has been grievous, it is still expected to total only a minute fraction of the US population, and to be concentrated among the elderly who are often already out of the labor force; and there has been little loss of physical plant or equipment. There will be no fundamental reason why the same pattern of economic activity as at the beginning of 2020 could not be quickly resumed, once we are all vaccinated against the coronavirus, or it has for some other reason receded as a threat.
Nonetheless, it is all too possible that this will not occur, because of the role that psychological and institutional factors also play as determinants of economic activity. In the years immediately following the crisis, the efficient use of the available productive resources is likely to be impeded by the legal, financial, and accounting systems that we rely upon to coordinate activity under our free-enterprise system. Many bills will go unpaid and contracts otherwise breached as a result of the crisis, and sorting out the resulting claims will not only itself require a major effort, but will present an obstacle to immediately resuming what had largely been productive activities before the crisis - and could be again, if only the debts and other legal claims generated by the crisis period could somehow be forgotten. Even where people do not have unpayable debts, the depletion of financial assets will reduce their ability to finance resumed activity, or to obtain financing from lenders. Emergency government financial assistance, also unprecedented in scale, will mitigate some of these burdens, but we seem not to have the political will or administrative capacity to address the problem to the degree needed to prevent serious damage to the efficiency of economic relationships that is likely to weigh upon the economy for years.
Even once the debts have been repaid or forgiven and assets built up again, the pattern of economic activity may be changed in lasting ways as a result of attitudes that have been changed by the experience of the pandemic - attitudes toward taking particular jobs, living in particular places, and organizing businesses in particular ways. Many of the most likely changes will result from increased caution, now that we have seen that a crisis of this kind can occur; for example, businesses may be more careful about relying upon complex international supply chains that can be disrupted if borders are suddenly closed, and individuals may be less willing to live in dense urban environments where viruses are so easily transmitted. Some changes in attitudes may reflect positive discoveries as well: many organizations may conclude that remote work by their employees is more practical than they had previously imagined. These changes in attitudes may well lead to lasting changes in the organization of economic activity. The changes are likely to mean a reduction in economic productivity and hence in overall growth in standards of living, as both businesses and households opt for certainty rather than speculating on more complex arrangements that are highly productive when all goes according to plan, but are vulnerable to crises like the current one. Whether the reduction in our level of income is balanced by increased resilience toward the crises of the future remains to be seen.
Whether it is economics, politics, education, global health, social policy, or technology, the COVID-19 pandemic has already altered how billions of us work and live. While it is impossible to predict any scenario with certainty, we hope to witness a rebuilding of society aided by innovation in science and medicine, as well as new policies and programs that promote equity and justice.