COVID-19 will shape the way we think about public policy forever

The Citizen Editorial Board
Image Source: CDC

Today, the first day of spring break, was always going to be a change from our HKS routines – whether we were going home to family, across the world on treks, or enjoying a “staycation” in Cambridge.  But over the past week, COVID-19 has changed our lives drastically, in ways we could have scarcely imagined. 

Many members of our HKS community have friends and families in highly affected areas and are deeply concerned about their loved ones from an unbearable distance. Many international students are struggling with the decision of whether to stay in the US or return home, with visas and travel bans adding to their uncertainty.  For those of us graduating this year, the abruptness of the end of our HKS life is disheartening and disorienting. 

COVID-19 is an acute and global crisis – one that presents a devastating challenge for policymakers around the world. As students of public policy and administration, we have an opportunity to learn from a case that is unfolding before our very eyes. Some of these learnings will be small and individual – others will be large and complex.

Here are five early reflections from The Citizen Editorial Board:

 

1) All policy is health policy.

We don’t often talk explicitly about the health impacts of our public policies. Commonly referred to as the ‘social determinants of health’, there is robust evidence that our economic, education, housing, and labour policies all have significant impacts on people’s health outcomes. COVID-19 makes this link impossible to ignore. 

Social isolation is one of the most effective measures we have to combat the rapid and overwhelming spread of the virus. But for many, it is not possible. Many families do not have individual rooms for each family member. The situation is even more dire for those experiencing homelessness, who rely on high-density shelters. Many workers do not have access to paid sick leave – if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. For far too many, getting sick means having to choose between going to work and exposing others, and staying home and struggling to pay for rent or food. This is especially true for low-income workers in the hospitality and service industries whose jobs rely on a high degree of social interaction.

With COVID-19, the risks to all of us are obvious. But these risks existed even before COVID-19, as evidenced by a CDC study finding that twelve percent of food workers go to work when they are sick with vomiting or diarrhea. This crisis is a reminder to all of us that the policies we will help shape in the future don’t just affect GDP, they affect the health of real people.  

 

2) We are only as strong as the weakest amongst us.

Public health funding is precarious: democratically elected politicians have an incentive to defund public health – the impacts are not immediate (meaning in a time of crisis you won’t get blamed), and spending that money instead on tax breaks or more immediate, tangible policies are more likely to please voters and lead to re-election.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s emergency preparedness budget has been cut by approximately 30 percent since 2003. Cutting public health funding when there is no immediate crisis may be a politically advantageous strategy – but we are learning a painfully obvious lesson on the difference between successful politics and successful public policy.  

 

3) We can be more mindful about air travel in the face of catastrophic climate change.

While COVID-19 is an acute and global crisis that is impossible to ignore, climate change is an acute and global crisis that is easier to push to the back of our minds – the impacts are less immediate and obvious. Flying is one of the largest and fastest growing contributors to climate change: the aviation sector accounts for approximately 2% of global emissions, and by some estimates could triple its emissions in the next three decades.

Air travel has taken a drastic hit during the COVID-19 crisis: the Australian airline Qantas has reduced its international flying capacity by 25%, while Chinese airline passenger numbers have dropped by 84.5%. Conferences and meetings are being held virtually. Interviews are being conducted remotely and some work travel is being cancelled entirely.

This crisis has forced us to be more mindful about when we choose to fly. When we inevitably recover from the impacts of COVID-19 and travel becomes safe again, we have an opportunity to continue to be mindful of our air travel, consider the climate impacts of our travel, and continue to use low-carbon ways of bringing the world together.

 

4) New technologies can make the classroom more accessible.

The transition to online classes via Zoom is certainly going to be full of growing pains and frustrations. But in one week we have already seen growth and adaptation in the classroom – for example, small group breakout sessions to facilitate greater engagement and discussion. Harvard and other top-ranked universities around the world have already drastically increased access to education for more than 20 million learners through the edX platform. This crisis presents an opportunity for Harvard and HKS to integrate even more tools to increase access to the immersive educational experience we are so privileged to have.  While online classes won’t be able to fully replace the learning of our in-person experiences, the lessons learned in the next semester could help bridge the divide between Harvard and many remote and low-resource settings, to facilitate learning in both directions. 

 

5) A greater sense of empathy for refugees, and our shared humanity. 

As we self-quarantine and socially distance as a result of COVID-19, many of us will experience a restriction on freedom and a sense of desperation that is novel for us. In the early days of the crisis, we are seeing a range of reactions: from those hoarding hand sanitizer to extract profits to those checking in on elderly neighbours and offering to grocery shop on their behalf to reduce their exposure. But many around the world face shutdowns and curfews everyday as a result of authoritarian regimes, war, and other causes of turmoil, and have been faced with impossible decisions for far longer. This crisis gives us the opportunity to think more compassionately the next time we hear of refugees fleeing broken societies. 

 

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Despite these opportunities, there is a clear and undeniable loss we all face from the impacts of COVID-19 on our time here at HKS. It will be very easy for us to feel more and more disconnected from our HKS community. As always, it falls on us to build community. 

Those who are staying near Cambridge can still meet in small groups (being mindful to follow the most up to date public health recommendations in a rapidly evolving landscape). And those who aren’t physically staying near Cambridge, those with compromised immune systems, or those who are symptomatic can still be part of the HKS community. For example, MPA students had their first virtual “IHOP Fridays”, where students joined a Zoom call at the time that they regularly meet at IHOP for pancakes. Any student can host a Zoom call with their HarvardKey by going to https://harvard.zoom.us/.

Here at The Citizen, we hope to serve as another platform to bring together the HKS community as we deal with these uncertain and destabilizing times. Please use it. Send us anything you’d like to share with your classmates – whether it’s a reflection or a rant, a story or a screenshot, a tip or a photograph from home. We look forward to regularly updating The Citizen throughout the rest of the semester. 

You can send us your reflections at: the_citizen@hks.harvard.edu 

 

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