Could the coronavirus reset society? Questions we should be asking about postpandemic life
Seattle – Hotel rooms for the homeless. Food-chain and sanitation workers hailed as national heroes. A Republican-led federal government flooding the country with easy money. Governors putting the brakes on evictions. A new national obsession with hand-washing and the finer points of epidemiology.
The coronavirus pandemic has even reduced air pollution in cities across the globe, including Seattle, as cars and trucks stay off the road – though not enough to make a dent in climate-change projections.
Few political analysts, social workers or doctors would have dared such dreams just four months ago.
But life has changed – the twin pressures of the coronavirus pandemic and economy-snarling lockdown have stretched the borders of what we thought was possible.
Which brings big questions: Will any of this stick around? Has this event loosened up parts of our social machinery that, just a few months ago, seemed unchangeable? What decisions are we making now that could have huge reverberations for years, even decades, into the future?
“I think the stay-at-home order has gone on for so long, with people living under a drastically different set of rules, that there’s a chance for a real reset, a reboot,” said Nicole Grant, executive secretary-treasurer of MLK Labor Council, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO federation of labor unions. “The inertia for the old ways of doing things is gone. We get to decide for ourselves now – as a people, as a country – how we want things to be.”
Aaron Katz, principal lecturer at the University of Washington School of Public Health, is more cautious about major institutional change. The pandemic, for example, has exposed risky fissures in our health care system: medical supply shortages, and infected people who aren’t detected quickly, including the uninsured and people with deductibles so high, they’re reluctant to see doctors if they’re feeling sick.
Could this move the U.S. closer to comprehensive health care?
“I’ve been in this game a long time, 45 years, and I wouldn’t bet a lot of shekels on anything bringing us into a universal health care system anytime soon,” he said. “The system as it’s structured generates so much money for people and organizations, it creates a huge bow wave against any change.”
That, he says, could be true for other big systems as well.
Either way, we are living in a pause of sorts, an interval where experts, local and national, are thinking about what we’re learning from this event – and what opportunities we might miss if we slide back to the old status quo.
“If you look at history, you often see big social change follow from crisis,” said Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University. “This is an opportunity for a big change: a reconnection to the idea of a common good, collective responsibility.”
This survey of ideas is nowhere near complete, and the sources quoted know their views are not consensus. Consider it a tasting menu of what’s being debated as we grope toward recovery.
Randy Engstrom, director of the city’s Office of Arts & Culture, says Seattle – first hit by the pandemic, one of the first headed out of it – is on the front edge of REImagining what the new normal might look like. From REI to Amazon, he argued, Seattle is an innovation machine.
“Our great ability is to do what we’ve always done,” he said. “Which is invent the future.”
Will COVID-19 epidemiology increase mass surveillance?
Some of that invention is happening in places – and with consequences – you might not expect. How we use technology to map this pandemic could have enormous, permanent effects.
First, a little background: For years, thinkers in the inner circles of tech have been waging a serious debate about data: Who “owns” it? Where should it be stored?
One camp thinks data is best aggregated by large entities: big government, big tech. The other camp argues for a more “federated” approach, with data encrypted and dispersed among devices and networks.
The pandemic has supercharged that debate, and the stakes are extraordinarily high.
“This is a pivotal moment,” said Blaise Aguera y Arcas, a leading, Seattle-based thinker about artificial intelligence and privacy at Google. “It’s a moral imperative to use the technology we’ve built to save lives, and now there’s a fork in the road. Do we do it in a federated, decentralized way that protects privacy, or do we double down on surveillance, which becomes visible to an entity at the center that can police it?”
Tracing COVID-19 exposure through cellphones is one example. Say I test positive for the virus. Centralized approach: My phone’s GPS data recalls every device I’ve been near (minutes on a bus, hours in an apartment), then tells a government agency, which could see that network and send an alert to all those devices. Federated approach: Using encrypted, peer-to-peer communication, or via an anonymous server, my phone could alert those other devices without the contact network being seen by a central authority.
Importantly, Aguera y Arcas explained, using federated tools wouldn’t leave us epidemiologically blind.
“Secure aggregation, for example, is a set of tools that can give you statistical insights without giving you the raw data,” he said. “Transmission hot spots, superspreaders – you can look at that information without surveilling anyone.”
Advocates for, Aguera y Arcas said, argue it’s a more obvious choice, it’d be faster and cheaper to develop, many of the components are already built, a more comprehensive view would be more effective and that data is more secure behind the fortress of a colossal entity (big government, big tech). The final assertion is an especially heated point of debate.
The choice we make now, Aguera y Arcas said, will have immense repercussions – if we go the centralized surveillance route, we can’t unring that bell once COVID is over. The tools could be used for other, less virtuous purposes. “It’s possible to use this kind of situation to create a surveillance regime that someone like Putin would be very, very pleased about,” he said. “Saving lives now, but causing long-term harm.”
The coronavirus crisis has revealed another kind of data urgency that had been felt in some circles for years – disaggregating data by race.
Andrea Pastor, senior economic adviser for the city of Portland, Ore., says the pandemic has deeply underscored the importance of tracking outcomes along racial lines.
As has been widely reported, coronavirus has hit Black and brown communities particularly hard for many reasons, including access to high-quality health care – but not all states are reporting that information and, as recently as March, members of Congress were petitioning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for better racial breakdowns of COVID-19 data.
The lack of data, in some cases, has become news.
Now that we’re paying more attention, Pastor said, data of all kinds should be disaggregated by race, especially in coronavirus-recovery efforts.
“We should have been doing this all along,” she said, “but we have the opportunity right now to track data and outcomes in real time – we can see if we’re getting it right and course-correct as we go.”
Pastor suspects seeing the data has also made people more aware of our systemic inequity. “We’re only as secure as the least secure members of our community,” she said. “That’s been known for a very long time, but now it’s front page news. I think that has sticking power – a lot of leadership feels like they have the bully pulpit to make big moves. The limiting factor, unfortunately, is what we can do with our budgets. How are we going to prioritize?”
That’s going to be a question for cities across the country: The latest numbers announced by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan estimate the pandemic will devour $210 million to $300 million of the city’s $6.5 billion budget this year. The needs and opportunities might be great, but the resources are evaporating.
Has the way we work changed forever?
“This whole pandemic experience is an existential master class in inequity,” said ChrisTiana ObeySumner, an intersectional disability-justice advocate and consultant who uses they/them pronouns. “A lot of concepts people saw as too big, too meta, are right in their faces now.”
Events from the past four months, they explained, have amplified a cluster of conversations around homelessness, low-wage workers, gaps in health care, medical racism and ableism.
The dissolution of the traditional office and a nationwide defection to Zoom have allowed entire sectors of middle managers to quickly accept something disability-justice advocates like ObeySumner have said for decades: It’s possible to put in a full day’s work at home. They said employers are also more likely now to grant sick leave without an employee having to produce a doctor’s note.
“The answer for all that stuff was a big ‘no’ before, but it’s a big ‘yes’ now,” said Anna Zivarts, program director for disability-justice group Rooted in Rights. “We hope that will continue.”
So does ObeySumner, but they’re skeptical: “These things were put in place not because they’re being inclusive of disabled folks, but because nondisabled people needed to maintain their productivity.”
Remote-work technologies have also raised questions about whether the commercial real estate market will soften – some businesses may close while surviving business owners wonder why they were paying all that rent in the first place and employees remain cautious about being too close to co-workers.
What could cities do with a bunch of empty rooms?
One result could be dystopian scenes out of “Blade Runner,” said Mott Greene, a Seattle-based historian and MacArthur Fellow: “Large empty buildings dripping and floors collapsing in downtown cores nobody wants.” Alternately, he said, they could be taken over and repurposed as spaces for public benefit such as child care or even homelessness services.
Some work, of course, hasn’t been changed by Zoom: Those essential, front-line workers – medical staff, grocery store workers, bus drivers, farm workers, many more – Seattle residents have been applauding every night at 8 p.m. as part of the #MakeAJoyfulNoise campaign.
Grant, of the MLK Labor Council, says the pandemic has put a spotlight on them, and a new awareness of who gets paid for what.
“One of the most powerful realizations we’ve had through this crisis is who is important in our society,” she said. “They were always essential workers, but we were pretending that tech executives and Jeff Bezos made logistics work instead of drivers, coders, warehouse workers. It turns out that everything important is ‘menial.’ “
Will all this celebration of front-line workers translate into financial celebration – or even immigration reform?
“Nothing comes without organizing and pushing for change,” she said. “But this is a great opportunity for that. Right now, people love each other. Gratitude is at maximum.”
But her colleague Jane Hopkins – a career nurse born in Sierra Leone, now executive vice president of the health care workers’ union SEIU 1199NW – is more pessimistic. “We have short attention spans,” she said. “We forget. We need a steady drumbeat for health care, child care, immigration reform. If we don’t, we are going to lose this window of opportunity.”
An unlikely renaissance
“The ‘normal’ of 2020 wasn’t serving all of this community,” said Engstrom, of the city’s Office of Arts & Culture. “The culture sector, the restaurant industry, were already living at the margins for 30 years.”
He sees a way for them to play a big role in our post-coronavirus recovery – but it will take money, which the city won’t have to spare. In mid-March, government agencies and nonprofits scrambled to find every spare penny for immediate arts-industry relief. Engstrom is proud of that effort, but knows it’s not enough: “As a sector, we probably put a $10 million salve on a $500 million wound.” (In early May, the arts-advocacy nonprofit ArtsFund projected up to $135 million in lost revenue for those organizations by the end of September.)
So Engstrom has been working across city departments to coordinate efforts, find philanthropic partners and look for outside funding opportunities.
He’s been thinking about the Works Progress Administration – the post-Depression federal jobs program – and WPA-like pilot projects for artists and hospitality workers here: documenting essential workers, and building a corps of “second responders,” who could cook meals and do other back-line work behind front-line responders in emergencies like a pandemic.
“Money follows vision,” he said, noting there is some national interest in the WPA-inspired strategies. “We’re one of the first cities coming out of this, and the course we chart could impact other cities and attract investment.”
Engstrom, who co-authored the city’s 2019 Creative Economy Report (along with members of the Office of Economic Development and the Office of Film + Music), argues investment in the creative sector is an investment in Seattle as a whole: by attracting money from outside the city, generating money inside the city and multiplying jobs in other sectors. (Fun fact: Every job at a dance company in Seattle creates 1.14 additional jobs elsewhere in the economy.)
Artist and small-business owner Greg Lundgren agrees that investment in Seattle culture is an investment in the entire city – but proposes a much grander idea.
“I’m worried that this crisis will create a more corporate cultural landscape,” he said. “Chuck E. Cheese and Applebee’s have the deep pockets to survive, but local galleries, theaters, restaurants will not.”
Lundgren has a bold 25-year, $1.25 billion investment plan called One Half of a Football Team (in 2019, the Seahawks were valued at $2.8 billion) with a 12-part prescription he thinks will ignite a cultural renaissance, which will ignite an economic renaissance, making Seattle a North Star for arts and innovation, attracting still more financial and human capital.
“Now is the time for bold strokes,” he said. “Do we want to grind through the next five years getting back to where we were five years ago? Or do we want to jump-start Seattle?”
Among the 12: $100 million for arts education ($4 million a year for 25 years); 250 artist residencies ($250,000 signing bonus, $100,000 a year for 25 years); a massive downtown arts center ($50 million for the building, a $250 million trust to fund it for 25 years); significant individual and institutional grants for 25 years; a biennial festival that would partner with the city and local business; even salaries for lawyers and accountants.
The pandemic has changed almost everything about life – and Oreskes, the Harvard historian, wonders if it will change our politics as well.
“We’re getting into this space of asking about individual rights versus the collective good,” Oreskes said. “These have always been tough questions, but it’s been very interesting to watch government bailing out small businesses, a huge infusion of federal funds into the economy – these are all New Deal-type initiatives. We have to boil down the question to: ‘Are we responsible for each other or not?’”
Trained first as a scientist, then as a historian, and the author of eight books, Oreskes has spent a big chunk of her career studying the fundamental principles of contemporary conservatism (pro-market, individual responsibility, low taxes) and the way they influence the larger conversations about scientific issues like climate change.
Oreskes wonders if the pandemic will shift American voters’ attitudes about the small-government movement that has become a dominant force in the Republican Party since the 1970s. (That history is the subject of her next book.)
“We have people running government who don’t believe in government,” she said. “Their instinct is: ‘Let the states do it, let the market do it, individual responsibility!’ We’re really seeing the consequences of that.”
At the same time, she says, the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress are doing somewhat un-Republican things – and there’s no outcry: “Government writing checks to people, vast expansion of unemployment benefits, making sure people get paid leave. Progressives have been looking for all of that for 40 years.”
Those moves, she says, are a natural response to the pandemic crisis – “you can’t just stand by and let people starve” – but are part of a fresh discussion about whether the best government is the least government.
“There is an opportunity for a smart leader to say: ‘Look, this COVID-19 thing has exposed all kinds of faults in our system: economic faults, technological faults, political faults,’” she said. “It requires a different narrative of who we are and how we create prosperity, reclaiming the vision of FDR.”
This moment, she says, will ultimately be seen through three big questions: “What is the story we’re going to tell about who we are, what we learned from this, and how we made ourselves better?”
Does she have any inkling what the answers might look like?
“I don’t know,” she said. “But we are all in this together. COVID-19 proves that.”