Panel: Coordination is key to a world beyond COVID-19

Leaders at every level of government – national, local, even university – face difficult decisions as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As this pandemic rolls on, we feel like we are in the middle of a teeter totter with health risks on one end and economic fallout on the other,” said Linda Barrington, associate dean for external relations at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, moderating an April 30 webinar, “Can Economic, Political and Public Health Realities Align? Emerging on the other side of COVID-19.”

A trio of Cornell thought leaders from economics, government and public health discussed the balance between public health and economic health, and the role government plays in finding a path forward during this worldwide crisis.

Nearly 1,700 viewers tuned in to the webinar, part of a special COVID-19 series, a collaboration of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, the ILR School and eCornell.

From the College of Arts and Sciences, Sarah Kreps, professor of government, gave insights into public policy and Kaushik Basu, the C. Marks Professor of International Studies in the Department of Economics, provided economic and international perspective. From Weill Cornell Medicine, Lawrence Casalino, the Livingston Farrand Professor of Public Health, grounded in medical facts the discussion of when and how to open the economy and society.

Casalino believes that opening has serious dangers until herd immunity is reached, “when 80% to 90% of people have had the virus or are vaccinated,” he said. “Without herd immunity, the virus will spread when we open up.”

At the time of the webinar, there were 3.1 million COVID-19 cases confirmed worldwide and 230,000 deaths. The United States reported more than 1 million confirmed cases and more than 61,000 deaths; U.S. deaths surpassed 75,000 on May 7. Far from reaching herd immunity, the United States offers sub-optimal testing for the virus, Casalino said, and effective contact tracing in such a “large, diverse and mobile” community poses a challenge.

Basu, joining the conversation from Mumbai, India, agreed that lockdowns limiting several categories – including schools, transportation, gatherings and freedom of movement – were necessary to slow the spread of the virus at first.

“My worry now is the exit policy from this,” he said. “You have to make space for the economy to function.”

Basu noted that $16 billion of foreign investment left India in March this year, which is the largest recorded outflow from the country in a single month. He suggested mitigating economic damage, and the eventual resulting deaths, by “unwinding” lockdowns one careful step at a time. A first step in India and elsewhere could be opening transportation with limits to maintain social distancing but allowing workers to return to their jobs.

Unwinding social and economic restrictions are acts of public policy, and public policy is about trade-offs, Kreps said. She cautioned against seeing a path out of restrictions as a stark choice between valuing human life and valuing the economy.

To implement an approach of “risk mitigation rather than risk elimination,” she said, better coordination is need at all levels of government. In the United States, in particular, political bickering and jurisdictional boundaries limit coordination since states have a lot of autonomy to regulate everything from commerce to schools. This can lead to regulatory differences across states.

The panelists agreed that increased coordination is necessary on many fronts if the world is to emerge from the pandemic. They also agreed that industry will likely see great change on the other side of this pandemic, particularly in the health care sector.

Basu predicted tremendous growth in the health care sector with the potential to reach more people. Casalino said he expects increased acquisition of medical practice by hospitals, private equity firms and insurance companies, and of hospitals by other hospitals.

In a similar vein, Kreps, a faculty fellow in the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity, predicted increased automation across industries. “It was already happening,” she said, “but I think that will accelerate now.”

Past episodes in the webinar series, which brings scholars together from across Cornell’s colleges and disciplines to inform and prepare people to counter the pandemic, are available on the eCornell keynotes page. The next installment, “Contagion, Persuasion, Motivation: Private and Public Behavior in the COVID-19 Crisis,” is scheduled for May 8.

Kate Blackwood is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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