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How might a pandemic affect US society and politics in 2020?

By Kat Barr, Anna Galland, Aaron Goldzimer, Sarah F. Ismail, Eli Pariser, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman and a large group of other allies and friends.

On Thursday March 5th, a group of activists, organizers, technologists and communicators gathered for a few hours to consider some of the potential social, economic, and political consequences of Covid-19.

We are not a trained group of scenario planners — just a group of concerned citizens trying to get better prepared for what may lie ahead. The situation that we find ourselves in as a country is rapidly evolving, and we don’t believe that any of the scenarios that we outlined below are necessarily likely to pass. Nor is this list by any means exhaustive. And hopefully we’ll look back on a number of them with bemusement.

To the extent that these possibilities help others stretch their imagination about what may be around the corner, however, they’re doing their job. Some of these possibilities are alarming, but this is not about fear — it’s about preparing thoughtfully and diligently for a once-in-a-century event that may be upon us. To quote a former Health and Human Services secretary, “we can be sure of two things: everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist, and everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate.”

Here are some consequences we think may be important to consider.

Different Communities Will Be Affected In Different Ways

  • A pandemic will affect different age groups, genders, and economic classes very differently. The mortality rate ranges dramatically by age and gender, and increases with health-care conditions like diabetes that disproportionately affect lower-income people. These groups may also be hit hardest in the short term by an economic downturn or a supply shock.
  • The age impacts alone may create tension between younger and older groups. If current trends hold, the risk for healthy adults under 50 may be relatively low, and very low for children. As a result for many middle-class families the pandemic could feel “overblown” — partly because they may get and recover from the virus without too much difficulty — at the same time that it’s severely impacting the poor, elderly, and sick. The politics of this could play out in disputes over school closures, among other things.
  • Economic inequality may play out in life-or-death ways. Decisions about whether to keep open subways and schools will have dramatically disproportionate impacts by class — after all, there’s no such thing as “work from home” for construction workers, caretakers, retail and restaurant workers, and many other workers even if economic demand remains stable. Closing schools for kids who rely on free school lunch and breakfast means something different than closing them for middle-class children. If at the same time health care systems are overburdened, lower-income families may be forced into a very difficult decision about safety vs. economic security (and of course, this is already happening in Washington State). Homeless populations are also likely to suffer in a pandemic.
  • Education disparities could also increase for children who have access to teleschooling services vs those who do not. Access to Internet, a computer, or a smartphone for each child may be limited in some communities.
  • Xenophobia and discrimination could increase beyond even where it stands today, especially aimed at Chinese and other Asian-Americans but also foreigners generally.
  • The impact on incarcerated people could be dire. Prison health care services are already poor and almost certainly unequipped to deal with virus outbreaks and a significant rise in critically ill prisoners. And with many people living in close proximity, prisons are the perfect venue for viral outbreaks — from the virus’s perspective. Jail and prison inmates are also more likely than average to have preexisting conditions that make them vulnerable.

A Pandemic Might Change the Practice of Politics and Voting

  • In-person politics may look different because of increased risks or perceptions of risk. Door-to-door canvassing may be considered unsafe (or people may just not open their doors). Rallies and conventions may be canceled (voluntarily or by governmental agencies). Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Donald Trump are all in one of the highest-risk categories for Covid-19 susceptibility — men over 70 — so they may get off the campaign trail or, conversely, get ill.
  • Going to vote in person may feel unsafe, so turnout may be depressed for some groups. New vote-by-mail systems will be hard to establish starting now, but absentee voting systems and other alternatives could be expanded if state leaders act quickly.
  • The politics of health care, paid sick leave, cash transfers and family leave may change dramatically and swiftly. In the case of a pandemic, if fatality rates hold, we are likely to all have personal or family experience with the failures and limitations of our current health care system (heroic health care workers aside). This may reorient the politics around Medicare for All-type proposals, among other things. Meanwhile, low-wage workers may be forced to come into work sick with the virus or lose their jobs. And a large economic stimulus may look like a reasonable response to economic stress.

There May Be Disparate Impacts For Immigrant Communities

  • Undocumented people (as well as those on DACA and in other precarious positions) will face difficult tradeoffs, and authorities will need to address issues like ensuring hospitals and medical facilities safe from ICE raids, and providing clarity about the uses of lists of quarantined or infected people to prevent misuse for immigration enforcement purposes.
  • Documented immigrants will need assurances that health care, quarantines and other costs connected to coronavirus will not be counted towards the new “public charge” standard — and their ability to attain residency or citizenship status will not be impacted. Additionally workarounds must be established for immigration processes that require returning to one’s home country if that country is impacted.
  • People with family in impacted countries may experience disruptions related to their ability to visit or support loved ones, and in myriad other ways — and will need recognition and support from within their communities.
  • Immigrant communities will need resourcing to ensure cultural competent outreach including credible messengers trained to provide information in relevant languages.

Digital Information Systems May Become More Important, and Disinformation May Be A Bigger Threat

  • If movement and in-person meetings are constrained, information systems may become more centrally important, and disinformation may become more centrally challenging. If people are “socially distanced” for significant periods of time, they’ll rely more heavily on digital communications to come together, coordinate, and share information — and they may also just have a lot more screen time, depending on economic circumstances. Disinformation could be a much more destabilizing part of such an environment. Likewise, the move to small group communications may be accelerated by this trend.
  • Information overload may also be a problem (separate from disinformation). A glut of unimportant but accurate information that makes it harder to hear & focus in on the most actionable, urgent, and accurate information seems likely.
  • The combination of economic inequality and stress, social and institutional distrust, disinformation and crisis is a potentially-toxic, potentially-galvinizing brew. Consider how virally shared information about secret health care services for the wealthy might play out.

A Pandemic May Also Raise Questions About Leadership and Governance

  • The story around the role of government (and the actual role of government) will be up for grabs. A pandemic feeds both the strongest progressive and conservative narratives. On the one hand, fear, scarcity, and self-protection (perhaps with guns) trigger core conservative and authoritarian political concerns. On the other hand, there’s no better way to illustrate the importance of competent governance, a firm grasp of science, and the way that all of our fates are bound together than with a public health crisis. It’s not coincidence that the progressive movement of a century-plus ago made public health a central priority. This may be a generational framing moment that shapes the future of politics for decades.
  • In the absence of effective federal institutions, local institutions and leaders may step up. Even if/as some appointees and others at the federal level bungle their response, state and city leaders may step up. And other federal government actors can model a better way of disseminating fact-based, non-alarmist but appropriately urgent, consistent information on what people can do.
  • …or it may be large corporations. Amazon, for example, may become a more central organization given its capacities, reach, and nearly 1 million employees. In the absence of clear guidance from a muzzled CDC, policies by big companies like Google about whether employees should travel or work from home might become the go-to resources for other decision-makers.
  • or networks and communities. As Paul Smith, one of the engineers who rescued and rebuilt healthcare.gov, puts it, we may be entering a phase of sustained economic and ecological shocks that may require us to think “like preppers, but with love and community.”

Systems Will Face Compounding Pressures, and New Systems May Need To Be Built.

  • Our systems may be more fragile and overburdened in the case of other natural or unnatural disasters. Consider how a pandemic intersects with forest fire season in the West or a sustained heat wave in Chicago. And foreign adversaries may see strained systems and politics as an opportunity (though they will likely also be dealing with similar challenges of their own).
  • Extensive, scaled new systems may be required to serve social functions — e.g. tele-school, tele-daycare, tele-medicine, tele-organizing, tele-events, tele-work. There may be an unprecedented need for startup-style entrepreneurialism applied to non-market social concerns and needs.
  • Artists and science fiction writers may have a jump on the rest of us. As one participant wrote, “Artists are unparalleled creative thinkers and engaging them in scenario planning, having them as artists-in-residence in any new processes/institutions/tables, etc. is critical — they will think of some wild ass shit that no one else will ever see coming.”

If you’re like us, the list above definitely gets the adrenaline flowing. It’s not intended to lead to panic, but to action — some of these are possibilities that, even if not likely, may be worth preparing for. The CDC’s pandemic business preparedness checklist is not a bad place for many nonprofits and small businesses to start, as is the state and local checklist for states and communities. We also recommend scenario planning — there’s a good writeup on how to do that here.

If the pandemic proceeds, it will require us to take care of each other at a scale that many of us have never experienced, and using means that are unfamiliar. It’s time to start thinking about what that may look like and getting ready.

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