COVID-19: The good news, the bad news and the uncertainty

Posted on Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Author: Prof. Stephen Blank

Stephen Blank

Senior Fellow, ISSP, uOttawa

On Thursday, September 24, the ISSP hosted Food for Thought event Science, Society and Policy in the Age of COVID19: What Changes will Stick? Which will Prove Fleeting?. This blog is an adaptation of the speaker’s remarks.

When thinking about which trends will stick in an age of COVID-19, I see bad news and good news. Whether we should be more pessimistic or more optimistic remains deeply uncertain. But even if the pandemic can be brought under control (a mighty assumption), the knock-on effects are grim.


The U.N. recently reported that the number of people suffering from acute food insecurity could double by the end of 2020 to more than 250 million. The New York Times recently reported that there are now about 45 million more poor in Latin America. Poor equals hunger equals malnutrition equals disease, and not just COVID. 

I expect waves of disease over the next year and a scaling-back of campaigns to reduce poverty, hunger and disease such as HIV and malaria. The Gates Foundation says that the percentage of the children who received all of their recommended vaccines has declined to where it was 25 years ago. In short, we can expect the knock-on effects of the pandemic lead to much greater global disease and perhaps even more pandemics.


We cannot look at the coronavirus alone. Our climate is changing more rapidly than anticipated even a few years ago and the poorest segments of the world are the likeliest to suffer. The number of people forcibly displaced worldwide has doubled over the past decade to 80 million. We are just beginning to estimate the impact of climate driven migrations, and not just in poorer countries. Think of the U.S. Gulf Coast or the 500,000 people in Oregon who had to be ready to leave their homes because of fire and the multiyear extreme drought in the US Southwest. These migrations also raise the possibility of disease outbreaks in encampments like those in Syria, Greece and Sub-Saharan Africa. As Al Jolson said, you ain't seen nothing yet.


The most significant trend of the past decades has been the decline of people living in extreme poverty. The Gates Foundation reports that this trend has been halted. Poorer communities in poor and wealthier countries alike have been hardest hit by the virus.

In many wealthier as well poorer communities, urgent time has been lost. A survey by Common Sense Media showed that 66% percent of US teens in private school said they were connecting with their teachers once a day or more during the pandemic, versus 31% of public school students. In terms of access to computers, Internet, broadband and even learning pods, the difference between wealthiest and poorest is vast. Globally, UN officials estimate that at least 24 million children will drop out of school and get sucked into work because of the virus.

The growth of inequality in the US is stunning. Our 643 billionaires have racked up $845 billion in collective wealth gains since March. Half of that $845 billion was captured by the 15 wealthiest on the list, and Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk captured 16% by themselves. The richest Americans get richer while 21 million Americans are unemployed.


The good news is that COVID has created enormous space for innovation. Many new tools are at hand and there's no shortage of capital for investment. All aspects of human interaction may be well transformed in the next decade. 

Until recently, I saw a doctor in the same fashion as my father's patients in 1936—make an appointment, wait at the office, see the doctor. I now see my oncologist by tele-medicine; my Apple Watch warns me if it thinks I am having atrial fibrillation; toilets in Japan can screen you for cancers. All this is just the beginning of an enormous transformation in health care.

For education, the possibilities for mixing and matching between digital and physical is enormous. In a few years, just like computers and flip phones, the tech we are using now will seem primitive, even quaint. The arts and cultural institutions face the similar challenge of choosing among a vast array of alternative technologies to improve the accessibility of their holdings and extend their reach outside of the brick and mortar institutions. 


The uncertainty is this: will these innovation be widely available? Higher education could be much less expensive with new technology, or the best technology might be found only in the wealthier schools. Medical procedures and treatments could be much less expensive with new technology, or new technologies might be found only in the wealthiest hospitals. There is enormous opportunity to improve access to education and health care, which are critical sources of inequality. 

I often talk with my students about building the first Model T. Henry Ford had to construct a whole factory, train thousands of workers, develop supply chains, and bring in the rubber and iron to build those cars. Many of today’s innovations are based largely on software. The upfront investment is modest compared to what was needed to launch industrial projects, the ability to correct as we go along is great. 

This is really a question of whether social policy will track or lead technological innovation, or whether social policy will fall behind this wave of innovation. Put it another way: Will some (or any) of the emerging innovations be treated as public goods? Or will most (or all) be seen as marketable commodities? Will innovations, for example, that profoundly improve access to healthcare and education be seen as public goods, available at low or no cost to all? Or will they be viewed as luxury products available only to those who can pay for them?

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