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What Comes After the Pandemic?

June 16, 2020
by Editorial Staff
Image source: Marcus Manschen

Berkeley experts explain what will change—and what should.

“The future will not, in crucial ways, be anything like the past, even the very recent past of a month or two ago,” the author Rebecca Solnit, M.A. ’84, wrote of the pandemic in the Guardian in early April. In a crisis, Solnit wrote, “Our focus shifts, and what matters shifts. What is weak breaks under new pressure, what is strong holds, and what was hidden emerges.” 

Like the other crises of our relatively recent past—both World Wars, the Great Depression, 9/11—the coronavirus has revealed the fragility of our society. After an intimate encounter with our own weakness, we now have an opportunity to build a more resilient and fairer society. The question becomes, will we rise to this challenge?

Berkeley is home to some of the world’s leading experts on health, public policy, economics, food, science, art, and technology. So we asked them: What lessons should be learned from this crisis? What old values do we need to jettison, what new ones should we cultivate? What technologies or institutions will become ascendant or obsolete? What matters most, and what should we focus on? Here’s what they had to say (complete with shelter-in-place selfies). 

—Laura Smith

Make America Care Again

By Walter Hood

Walter Hood, M.Arch. ’89 is creative director at Hood Design Studio and a professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning and Urban Design at Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. In 2019, he was honored with a MacArthur Fellowship, a Knight Public Spaces Fellowship, and the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.

I HOPE THIS EXPERIENCE forces us to have more empathy for our fellow citizens, particularly those we have neglected—literally, in every sense of the word. Our sense of community and civic engagement in America has terribly eroded over the past 40 years as we have become increasingly segregated and polarized. And as a nation we have lost many of the values that had come to define us as beacons of hope in the world.

This moment has also revealed the incredible technological divide in our communities and the inequalities that exist in terms of access. And it has also illuminated how powerful technology can be as we seek new ways to connect with, monitor, and protect one another.

These are times for us to act, as we see clearer skies, rejuvenated ecologies in our cities (flora and fauna), and changes in our daily patterns and practices. This is a reminder that we all deserve to live in and contribute to healthy environments. And remember, we are all in this together.

Inoculate Against Racism

By Catherine Ceniza Choy

A KEY LESSON THAT WE SHOULD LEARN from this crisis is that racism is a persistent virus. One of the dangerous ways that it spreads is through the use of divisive language. In the United States, the labeling of COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus” has contributed to the scapegoating of Chinese and other Asian Americans for the devastation caused by the disease. Between March 19 and April 23, 2020, the STOP AAPI HATE reporting center received almost 1,500 reports of coronavirus discrimination from Asian Americans across the country. These acts of hatred are morally repugnant because they bring harm to innocent human beings.

Catherine Ceniza Choy is a professor of Ethnic Studies and an associate dean of the College of Letters & Science’s Division of Undergraduate Studies. She is the author of the award-winning book Empire of Care: Nursing and Migration in Filipino American History.

Racist scapegoating is also counterproductive because it ignores the progress that has been gained from scientific, medical, and historical studies of disease. Disease does not see color. It does not recognize the borders of nation-states, ethnic enclaves, and Chinese restaurants. And yet the fear of contracting the disease from anyone who looks Chinese has led to racial discrimination against Asian Americans and Asian migrants throughout the world.

The present-day association of Asian bodies with disease is not new. Asian American history illuminates that it is the most recent example in a longstanding history of racializing Asians as disease carriers, and blaming Asian immigrants and U.S-born Asian Americans for outbreaks, such as smallpox outbreaks in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, and bubonic plague in the early 1900s.

One of the most tragic consequences of anti-Asian violence in the United States during this pandemic is that it hurts American health workers of Asian descent. U.S. hospitals have historically recruited Asian health workers during times of crisis, such as the AIDS epidemic. Today, our health care system relies on a foreign-born workforce who comprise a significant percentage, almost 17 percent, of health care professionals. Most foreign-born nurses hail from the Philippines. Many foreign-born physicians are from India. They are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 at the risk of their own and their families’ safety and well-being. Anti-Asian sentiment only exacerbates the intensity of their stress on the front lines. Thus, American society will be better off if we can learn lessons from the past as well as the present. 

In order to survive this pandemic, we must eradicate the virus of racism as well as this novel coronavirus.

Adjust Your Eyes

By Dacher Keltner and Mitchell Walker

AS WE WRITE THIS, THE COVID-19 VIRUS has transformed society. It is estimated 60,000 will die in the United States, exceeding U.S. deaths in the Vietnam War. We are in quarantine, experiencing a form of social isolation unknown since the Spanish influenza. Education has been disrupted on a national scale. Depression, anxiety, and PTSD may rise threefold. And the virus is laying bare the weaknesses of U.S. culture: It is increasingly clear we will witness the greatest harm to those always hit hardest by disease—the poor, the disenfranchised, and people of color. It is a time fraught with fear and horror. But also awe. As environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams suggests: “The difference between fear and awe is a matter of our eyes adjusting.”

For the past 15 years, the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab has sought to understand awe—the feeling of being in the presence of vast things that we don’t understand. In our research from 26 cultures from around the world, we have documented eight universal sources of the emotion: others’ courage, collective activity, nature, music, art, ideas, spirituality, and life and death. And very often people report awe in response to natural disasters. In response to floods. Tornadoes. Droughts. Avalanches. Sandstorms. Fires. Storms. And COVID-19.

In ongoing research, Masataka Nakayama of Kyoto University is finding that people who feel awe in response to natural disasters—the 2019 Tokyo Typhoon and the outbreak of COVID-19 in his studies—fare better in terms of stress, well-being, and purpose. They adjust their eyes, so to speak. This result aligns with our own findings that awe promotes lower stress, resilience in the face of threat, a sense of well-being, and a healthier immune system and cardiovascular profile.

Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology, founder of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and host of the popular podcast The Science of Happiness.

Mitchell Walker is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker now studying anthropology at UC Berkeley.

How might this be? Through two pathways in which awe influences our minds and bodies. Experiences of awe promote increased sharing, cooperation, and humility. These immediate effects of awe make for stronger communities, of the kind that arose, for example, after the great earthquake of 1906. Or what we are seeing now, forming in the face of the current pandemic.

Second, awe stimulates wonder—our open-ended curiosity about questions that arise due to the limitations of our knowledge. In part because of the failure of the federal government to test for COVID-19, mysteries abound. How lethal is it? How prevalent? How many jobs will be lost? What will our economy look like two years from now? What will schooling be like? Or our social relationships? History tells us that natural disasters are often the engine of social change, which we suggest is envisioned and brought about by awe and wonder. 

Perhaps the best documented example of this is the Black Plague, which killed 30 to 50% of the population of Europe in the 14th century. Its narrative is pure horror, but then, through a shifting of the cultural lens, became a force for social good. Anthropologist Sharon DeWitte observes that from this arose a Europe where, “There was more land, more food, and more money for ordinary people.” Cities were cleaner due to the curtailment of lead use and mining. Forests became more abundant. Healthcare improved. Serfdom collapsed, and a new class emerged: the free citizen. Shortly thereafter the transformation would be complete with the emergence of the Renaissance, one of the greatest epochs for art, architecture, and literature in human history. 

Perhaps the awe we feel in grappling with COVID-19’s vastness and mystery, and the wonder it has stirred, will do the same for the United States. The U.S. has been stuck in old, pernicious patterns, now recited with familiarity, that will define the narrative of COVID-19—economic inequality, racism and classism, poverty, and ecosystem destruction and climate emergency. Perhaps the awe and wonder of this moment will yield 21st century solutions to these historic problems. 

There are signs this is beginning to happen. People are self organizing to help those in need. Companies are offering free services for the homebound. We have necessarily stopped activities like driving and flying, and as a result our air and water are cleaner, the environment quieter. And wildlife has benefitted, repopulating areas shut down from the virus. Bear populations in Yosemite Valley have quadrupled. China has banned the domestic trade of wild animals, a cruel and dangerous practice that sparked the coronavirus in the first place. And most remarkably, in slowing down, we are discovering more and more of the wonder in the mundane. The birdsong. Spring. The simple pleasure of a neighborhood walk. 

These shifts were made out of necessity, but will endure should we return forcefully to our capacity for awe. Perhaps this will prove to be the path to new approaches to old problems—inequality, racism, and materialism—that have endowed COVID-19 with its current power and mystery. To do this may be a matter of our eyes adjusting from fear to awe.

Make Education a Public Good Again

By Caitlin Zaloom

TODAY, ACROSS THE COUNTRY, NURSES AND DOCTORS are battling the coronavirus by caring for patients and their communities in unprecedented ways. They take temperatures, evaluate breathing, and intubate the critically ill while working in improvised COVID wards. They wear makeshift safety gear (like garbage bags). They see patients die whose illnesses could have been prevented. At New York Presbyterian, the head of urology is working night shifts in the Emergency Room. At New York University, where I teach, healthcare workers have moved into dorm rooms to isolate themselves, hoping to keep their families, and all of us, safe. 

Recognizing and repaying the sacrifices that healthcare workers and indeed all Americans of all kinds are making now demands that we take a new perspective. In the 1990s, experts argued that a college education was the best investment Americans could make in their futures. They claimed that educations were like houses—worth acquiring because eventually they would deliver financial gains. Buying into this logic, the government, banks, and universities decided it was fair and sensible to ask students who could not pay for college out of pocket to take on debt to cover the high costs.

Caitlin Zaloom, Ph.D ’02 is an associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. She is the author, most recently, of Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost.

 

Today this logic seems nonsensical. We need an educated society so that we can survive threats like the coronavirus. Sending people to college is not primarily for promoting individual wealth, but a collective investment that we make in ourselves. 

Both during and after the pandemic, graduates will put their degrees to work for others on a daily basis. For instance, teachers, like health care workers, have retooled their craft. With just a few days of notice and little time to plan, they are now teaching millions of children online. Without them, parents across the country would be unable to continue their own work, which is keeping both their families—and all of us—afloat. Teachers’ creativity, dedication, and perseverance are undeniable. They’re not merely helping the next generation learn facts and figures; they’re modeling the kind of public responsibility that we need for the future.

Education, of course, has always been a public good. It’s time for policies that treat it like one. We should cancel student debt now. We owe a moral debt to those who are putting their lives at risk to keep us safe and secure. We are also indebted to young people who are staying at home despite the fact that they face little risk of death or serious illness from this coronavirus. They are making sacrifices for all of us. But that is not enough either. The pandemic makes it clear that we must reinvest in higher education so that young adults will not have to carry disabling debt and can use their educations to the fullest, for all of us. 

It’s time to recommit to free public higher education, the kind that UC Berkeley and the entire University of California once provided, the kind that helped California flourish. It is what we owe to each other.

This Should Have Been a Problem, Not a Pandemic

By Daniel M. Kammen

AS OF THIS WRITING (EARLY APRIL 2020), more than 1 million people worldwide are sick with COVID-19, 20 percent of them in the United States. After claiming that COVID-19 was nothing more than the flu, the U.S. president has been forced to retreat and admit that 200,000 deaths would be a sort of victory relative to forecasts of 2 million dead. His presidency has turned away from science in search of profits for the already wealthy and cares so little about its citizens that basic health care is a luxury good. We have seen the worst economic quarter in the history of the U.S. stock market, and unemployment is approaching 15% nationwide, with projections of 50% in some of the hardest hit, and most fossil-fuel dependent, states. Everything COVID is of excessive, historic proportions.

Daniel M. Kammen is the Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy with appointments in the Energy and Resources Group, the Goldman School of Public Policy, and the Department of Nuclear Engineering. He is also the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL), co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment, and director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center.

And yet, COVID-19 is a simple, natural virus. True, it is potent and challenging, but it is not unique, and there will be other crises on a crowded, over-consuming planet where we have put every ecosystem and species in peril, including our own.

There is, however, nothing natural about the crisis we now face. It has been engineered by humans. The tragedy we face is, in fact, one of greed and indifference. 

To turn a virus into a social and economic upheaval takes work. We needed to actively ignore and discount most of the best lessons of the past century. We have elected a government that devalued, ignored, and disrespected science, despite a century of medical advances that have enabled healthy, long, lives. We have under-invested in research and education, despite awarding the 1987 Nobel Prize in Economics for work that indicates that 80 percent of economic growth, or more, derives from scientific and technological innovation. We have uplifted opinions on social media based on how caustic and cruel they are, not how much they are based in fact. We installed a government that has looked to divide, not to unite, has fought against healthy air and water, and encourages wages to be as low and demeaning as possible to enrich the already affluent.

COVID-19 would not have spread as fast and as virulently if the lessons of SARS, MERS, and Ebola were acted upon in the United States. It would be a problem, not a pandemic, if healthcare were available to the people who cook, clean, shop, and care for the more affluent. And more importantly, destruction of biodiversity and natural areas means that coronavirus-type episodes are likely to become more common.

So, while COVID-19 is rightly dominating the headlines, the true crime is of sidelining science, abusing the planet by valuing profits over basic health and educational services, living wages, and social opportunity for the most vulnerable.

COVID Will Pass, Climate Change Won’t

By Michael E. Mann

IT’S AN IMPORTANT TEACHING MOMENT because there are all sorts of implications for how we deal with other existential threats, like climate change, that may play out on a longer time scale and may not be as acute, but are every bit as real. Just this morning we learned that Boris Johnson has contracted coronavirus. There’s a tragic irony in that, because he took an anti-scientific approach to the epidemic.

Michael E. Mann ’89 is a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, with joint appointments in the Department of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. He is also director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center and was recently inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.

It has been interesting to see how denial has played out. We had a president who initially dismissed COVID-19, just like he has with climate change, as a Democratic hoax. And then, of course, he came around to what he had to—accepting the reality of the problem.

In the case of COVID-19, we have been guided in our policy by predictive models that use the underlying principles of science to predict what can happen under different scenarios. We’ve learned that the predictive skill of those models has been excellent, and they have informed policy. Well, the same thing is true with climate change. It’s just that things play out more slowly. But our predictive models have been proven very skillful, and they absolutely have implications for policy in what we need to do to avert this even more existential catastrophe.

Collectively, we will move past COVID-19 in a year. There will be a lot of death, damage, and destruction, and it’s very unfortunate, but we know that things will somewhat return to normal. It will pass. With climate change, it won’t pass. By some measure, dangerous climate change has already arrived. At this point, it’s simply a matter of how dangerous we’re willing to let it get. 

We can limit the damage if we act now.

Read our feature about Michael Mann’s ongoing fight against climate change denial—and doom—here.

Children Will Light the Way

By Louis Sachar

IT IS ESTIMATED THAT A THOUSAND YEARS AGO there were about 300 million people, in total, living on our planet. World population didn’t reach 1 billion until the early 1800s, but by 1951 there were 2.5 billion people, and in the early 1990s that number had doubled. In 2007, shortly before I began work on my novel, Fuzzy Mud, there were nearly 7 billion people living on Earth.

Fuzzy Mud tells a story somewhat similar to today’s crisis. A mutated microorganism known as an “ergie” reproduces every 36 minutes, and turns into a strange kind of mud that threatens to destroy the world. At the end of each short chapter, I included a simple multiplication problem: 2 x 1 = 2 for the first chapter, 2 x 2 = 4, after the second, 2 x 4 = 8 after the third, and so forth. By the 30th chapter the number had exceeded a billion. And, of course, it would continue to keep on doubling every 36 minutes.

Louis Sachar ’76 is a best-selling writer of young-adult novels and the author of Holes and the Wayside School series. His latest book, Fuzzy Mud, was originally called “Frankengerms.”

That is what is happening inside people infected with the coronavirus, and it is also what is happening to our planet. It is hard to see how civilization, as we now know it, is sustainable if the population continues to double every 40 years or so. There will be more disasters.

This is probably not the start of the essay you expected from the author of humorous books for young people. Indeed, one of the reasons I like writing for kids, and about kids, is that they have their whole world ahead of them. They are full of joy and wonder. I have always tried to share that joy and wonder in my work, and my books have always been optimistic.

The challenge for me, personally and professionally, when I started writing Fuzzy Mud, was how I could write an optimistic novel, when I felt so pessimistic about the future. In the end, I found my optimism in the characters I created, and in my readers.

Tamaya, the protagonist of the story, is a quiet, shy, fifth-grade girl who just wants to please her teachers. She is scared to death of ever getting into trouble. Her friends call her a goody-goody. However, by the end of the book she has proven herself to be the most courageous character I ever created. She inspired me.

I realize that it sounds a little crazy to say a character I created gave me inspiration. But there comes a point when working on a novel when it feels like I am no longer making up the story, but rather just observing as the characters dictate what happens next. 

Tamaya, along with the thousands of young readers I have met over the past 40 years, gives me hope. There are children all around the world who are not mere population numbers, but thoughtful, creative, imaginative, and virtuous individuals. 

It may be overstating the obvious, but throughout history children grew up to become Pythagoras, Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, Chuck Berry, Oprah Winfrey… (please feel free to add whomever you choose).

And they are among us now. I’m not implying they have to be famous to be significant. They are what President George H.W. Bush called “a thousand points of light.” Maybe they are just tiny sparks now, but each will shine in their own special way.

Whatever life looks like post-COVID-19, young children everywhere will simply accept the world for what it is, without giving much thought to what it once was. They will light the way forward.

Artificial Intelligence to the Rescue? Maybe Next Time.

By Stuart Russell

AI HAS A RELATIVELY MINOR ROLE in the current situation. There are a lot of AI and robotics people jumping up and down and saying “I can do epidemiology” and “I can build a ventilator,” but the reality is that professionals who have spent a lifetime on these issues will be far more effective.

Stuart Russell is a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and holds the Smith-Zadeh Chair in Engineering. He is a leading researcher on artificial intelligence and the author of influential books on the subject including 2019’s Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control.

 

That said, perhaps there are things that can be done for next time, in addition to making sensible provision for testing capacity, hospital surge capacity, and resilience of the production and distribution system. I think AI can help with more realistic and detailed epidemiological models that handle uncertainty, with real-time monitoring and learning to adapt the models to real data, and with rapid exploration of intervention plans to identify the best course of action and to modify it as events unfold. And there are many applications in healthcare, from robotic systems helping with patient handling in isolation environments to much more intelligent ICU monitors that can expand the number of patients a hospital can handle. All of these things have to be developed before the fact, of course.

Bring Back Victory Gardens

By Alice Waters

MY PARENTS STARTED THEIR VICTORY GARDEN during World War II and they never let go of that their whole lives. They grew all kinds of vegetables and canned their apples. They had glorious tomatoes that they canned for the winter and made rhubarb compote. We ate completely seasonally, and dare I say, locally. And so that is what could happen.

Alice Waters ’67 is a chef, author, food activist, and owner of Chez Panisse restaurant, which she founded in 1971. A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2015 by President Obama.

Right now, we are facing climate change as well as this virus, and to think that regenerative, organic agriculture could feed us in the best possible way, and at the same time pull down the carbon and address climate change, sounds almost too good to be true. The Victory Garden movement was started by the government, you know. And they printed all the pamphlets teaching people how to farm. They did farms in front of the post offices, they did them in the parks, they did them everywhere they could to allow people to be fed.

Now, can you imagine if we did this, if we use a lot of that money that is supposedly available? If we made Victory Gardens, if we really cared about feeding people in that deep way, it could be amazing. Really amazing.

Read our interview with Alice Waters about the culinary and societal implications of sheltering in place, the history of food during hard times, and Waters’ comfort food suggestions here.

We Are Flunking the Marshmallow Test!

By Marina Gorbis

IN ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS EXPERIMENTS in psychology, researchers put a marshmallow in front of a child and promise that if she doesn’t eat it for 15 minutes, she will get an extra one later. The ability to resist temptation and not eat the sweet right away has been widely associated with success later in life in everything from academic performance to professional careers. The virtue of delayed gratification is something we try to teach children early on. Who doesn’t remember Aesop’s fable about the feckless grasshopper and the industrious ants? The poor grasshopper, while dancing and enjoying himself through the summer, was left hungry in the winter while the ants did fine. The moral: plan for the future.

Marina Gorbis ’79, MPP ’83, is executive director of the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a 50-year-old nonprofit research and education organization based in Palo Alto. She was a Regents’ Scholar at Berkeley and holds a B.A. in psychology and an MPP from the Goldman School of Public Policy.

 

We, as a society,  are completely flunking the marshmallow test. We consume resources today without thinking about long-term consequences. We fail to invest in our public health infrastructure in order to be well equipped to deal with epidemics like COVID-19. We are inured to the fact that millions of Americans don’t have $400 in savings in case of an emergency. Why? Here, we can turn to the marshmallow test again.  

After the initial study, conducted by the late Stanford Professor Walter Mischel, subsequent research found that the differences in performance on the test were not because some children had inherently stronger willpower than others. Rather, children’s behavior was largely determined by environmental circumstances—their families’ socio-economic status, cultural preferences, previous experiences, and other factors outside of the child’s immediate control.  

The same is true for our society. We are just not able to delay gratification and act in our long-term collective interest because we are operating in a system with built-in rewards for short-termism. Our business leaders are rewarded for cutting costs rather than building resilient systems. Our students and educational institutions are fixated on tests and grades rather than deep learning. Our politicians are focused on the next election. 

The crisis we are experiencing today is arguably the crisis of short-termism. Right now, we are in the Response mode. This is Act 1 of the crisis, which will be followed by Act 2: the Reset—the time when we put the crisis into a larger perspective and assign meaning to it. After Reset comes Act 3: Reinvention. If we have learned anything from the COVID-19 crisis it is that Act 3 has to include building new systems that reward and incentivize long-term thinking and acting.

We Need to Attack the Virus at Its Core

By Randy Schekman

IT’S HARD TO PLAN AHEAD AS WE face the greatest health challenge of our generation. Aside from the many logistical errors, our greatest mistake may have been in not anticipating the emergence of yet another deadly coronavirus. Beginning with SARS 18 years ago and MERS 8 years ago, we should have mounted a public-private effort to attack the virus at its core. 

Coronaviruses have occupied considerable attention in the basic research community, and much has been published on the virus life cycle and replication since the days of SARS and MERS. Mechanistic studies on virus reproduction are the necessary prelude to disease intervention. However, these epidemics subsided too quickly to have justified an investment by the pharmaceutical industry in the discovery and marketing of drugs, an effort that consumes billions of dollars for each successful application.

Randy Schekman is an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a professor of cell and developmental biology in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2013.

 

In the absence of new medicines, drugs developed for other viral infections are being investigated or repurposed for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), but the results are mixed. Two such drugs have been considered: one that targets Ebola is in late-stage clinical trials and the other, developed for HIV, has already proven ineffective. Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, drugs used to treat malaria (caused by a parasitic micro-organism, not a virus), have yielded equivocal results for COVID-19. Regrettably, no drug has been available to stem the tide of the first wave of the COVID pandemic.

If all goes well, we will have a reasonable SARS-CoV-2 vaccine sometime next year. Patients who recovered from the SARS epidemic in 2008 retained immunity for only a season or two; thus, a vaccine may have to be delivered as regularly as the annual flu shot. Natural evolution of the surface antigens on viruses, such as flu and HIV, makes it difficult to anticipate a vaccine candidate. Likewise, for SARS-CoV-2, we have yet to produce a vaccine that works on a variety of coronavirus variants. 

In contrast, the core machinery that a virus’s genome encodes is less flexible to random mutation and therefore more amenable to targeted chemical attack in the form of drugs that work to block functions essential for virus reproduction. This is the difficult lesson but triumph of our successful approach to HIV therapy, and that example must now guide our efforts to master the present and future versions of the coronavirus. This effort must be sustained even if a successful vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 is developed.

The Unthinkable Is Possible

By Robert de Neufville

THIS PANDEMIC WAS NOT A SURPRISE. Experts have been warning for years that a novel respiratory coronavirus originating in animals could kill millions. If the original SARS virus were spread more readily by people with few or no symptoms, this might have happened 17 years ago. Although it was hard to know initially how severe this outbreak would be, it was just a matter of time before some more dangerous disease emerged. We may actually be lucky the current pandemic isn’t even worse. If SARS-CoV-2 were just a little more lethal or spread just a little more easily, many more people might die.

Yet we did not take important steps that could prevent disease outbreaks. We did not do enough to limit activities that could make viruses more likely to jump from other animals to humans, or to improve disease surveillance around the world, or to build the capacity needed to respond to a major outbreak. When SARS-CoV-2 began to spread, some governments initially tried to minimize what was happening or were simply too slow to take decisive action. As a result, we missed our opportunity to suppress the virus effectively.

Robert de Neufville M.A. ’96 is the director of communications of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. He is also a “superforecaster” who was among the top performers in the IARPA-ACE forecasting tournament. He lives in Honolulu.

Natural infectious diseases aren’t the only threat we face. We still live with the threat of nuclear war. The global climate is changing rapidly, with uncertain consequences. New technologies like biological engineering and artificial intelligence are creating new risks we’re only beginning to understand. Some potential catastrophes could even threaten our survival as a species. What’s happening now should teach us that the unthinkable is possible.

Decision-makers often don’t have much incentive to prepare for potential catastrophes. Planning for catastrophes that may never happen won’t help them generate quarterly profits or win the next election. In normal times, preparing for the worst can seem like a waste of effort and money. When catastrophes are averted, it may seem as though there were never any real danger. 

We need to learn our lesson this time. We have to take experts seriously and commit resources to prevent catastrophes while they still seem far away. By the time it’s clear we need to act, it may be too late. We also need to reinforce institutions like the WHO that mitigate catastrophic risk so that future generations don’t forget the lesson we learn now. We can’t say we weren’t warned.

Real-Time Disease Surveillance Is the New Norm

By Pia D. M. MacDonald

THIS IS THE FIRST TIME THE GENERAL PUBLIC has had real-time data available about a disease outbreak impacting our own communities and the world. Historically, morbidity and mortality data about diseases have come from and been aggregated by government sources at the local (e.g., Alameda County), state (e.g., California), national (e.g., U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and international levels (World Health Organization).

Pia D.M. MacDonald ’91, Ph.D., MPH, CPH, is a senior epidemiologist at RTI International and an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina.

 

With COVID-19, we are now getting our aggregated, actionable, and comparable COVID-19 information (testing counts, test positive/negative rates, death counts and rates, etc.) from many other sources and much improved from what has previously been available through governmental websites. 

The real-time COVID-19 dashboards are being built by a variety of sources such as newspapers and media outlets that partner with universities, technology companies, a platform run by members of the Chinese medical community, and individual data scientists. The data are being sourced from traditional sources (health departments, census), scraped from the internet, and donated by companies and individuals. This aggregated and widely accessible information provides individuals, communities, companies, and governments the ability to see and understand the COVID-19 outbreak near and far. It will help us make critical choices that are unique to us as individuals, communities, and businesses. 

The new normal will include an expectation that all disease data will be aggregated from many sources and widely available to all in real-time. While this began for COVID-19, moving forward it will be the same for seasonal influenza, acute hepatitis A, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, measles, and malaria, to name a few. As a society, we will expect to have this information at our fingertips. The challenge for epidemiologists and other public health professionals will be to support interpretation of this information. As a society, it will inevitably prompt new ethical and moral dilemmas.

Think Globally

By Robert Reich

Robert Reich is the Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. His latest book is The System: Who Rigged It, How To Fix It.

HOPEFULLY, THIS CRISIS TEACHES US two very big lessons: First, that national boundaries mean very little to viruses, climate change, nuclear warheads, or weaponized information. We can’t build walls against such global problems. They require global solutions and the continuing work of experts and leaders all over the world.

Second, that when it comes to public health, there is no escape from our interdependence.

Ultimately, we are only as healthy as the least healthy among us. Health is not just an individual condition but a public good. Extending healthcare to everyone is not a matter of charity but of enlightened self-interest.

We Must Safeguard Liberty, Even in Crisis

By Erwin Chemerinsky

THE GOVERNMENT HAS BROAD POWERS TO STOP the spread of a communicable disease, but courts need to be vigilant that it not lead to the unnecessary restriction of individual freedoms. Around the world we are seeing governments using the pandemic as an excuse for restrictions on civil liberties and fundamental rights. Bolivia and Hungary have canceled elections. Thailand, Jordan, and Hungary have restricted speech. Israel has ordered the closure of courts and used technology to track cell phone movement. In the United States, several states have used the COVID-19 crisis as a basis for prohibiting all abortions.

It must be the judiciary’s role to strike the balance between allowing the government the powers that it needs to deal with the public health emergency, but not unnecessarily infringe civil liberties and fundamental rights.

Erwin Chemerinsky is Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law and dean of the Berkeley School of Law. He is the author of 11 books including We the People: A Progressive Reading of the Constitution for the Twenty-First Century.

 

The law is clear: The government has authority in a public health emergency to take the steps needed to stop the spread of a communicable disease. In 1905, the Supreme Court declared: “Upon the principle of self-defense, of paramount necessity, a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.” This includes the power to quarantine individuals and to impose criminal penalties on those who willfully disobey orders designed to limit the spread of coronavirus COVID-19. In 1926, the Supreme Court wrote: “It is well settled that a state, in the exercise of its police power, may establish quarantines against human beings, or animals, or plants.” Sheltering in place is just a less restrictive form of a quarantine. 

Similarly, the government can restrict assembly for religious or speech purposes to limit spread of communicable diseases. But the government cannot use the pandemic as a basis for restricting the content of speech.

The restrictions on abortion should be declared unconstitutional. Some states have prohibited abortion as part of ending non-essential medical procedures to save health care resources. But many abortions are induced by drugs and don’t involve surgery. Also, unlike many medical procedures, there are great consequences to delaying abortions. Most important, women have a constitutional right to abortions and the state prohibitions violate that right.

A myriad of issues will arise concerning individual rights in the current pandemic. The challenge will be to allow the government to have the power it needs to stop the spread of a communicable disease, but not allow more restrictions on liberty than necessary.

Nothing’s Funny About Pandemic, but Humor Will Survive

By Maz Jobrani

I HAVE ALWAYS THOUGHT THAT STANDUP COMEDY and live entertainment were recession-proof. After 9/11, people were looking for ways to heal from the tragedy by going to comedy shows and laughing. After the 2008 economic crash, people were using their limited money to buy tickets to live shows to get their minds off their financial losses. However, COVID-19 has shown us that nothing is recession-proof, not even comedy.

Maz Jobrani ’94 is an Iranian-American comedian and founding member of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. A frequent panelist on NPR’s news quiz Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and author of the memoir, I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV, Jobrani was the keynote speaker at Berkeley’s 2017 commencement ceremony.

So now we find ourselves in a futuristic world where late-night TV comedians are forced to do their shows from their living rooms and every person with a comedic bone in their body is streaming live on Instagram, YouTube, or Zoom. As a standup comedian, I feel the need to perform, and Instagram has given me that platform by allowing me to do a daily rant for my followers, peppering in some jokes and music as I go along. I do it for them, but mostly I do it for me. Performing in front of people has been a part of my life for 22 years, and the coronavirus isn’t going to stop me. 

So, what does this all mean for comedy and humor when our lockdown days are done? What will we have learned as performers and comedians from all of this? One thing I’ve learned is that in such heavy times, when the news is so bad, people need laughter. Taking a break from all the tragedy has definitely helped me cope with this current situation. Seeing all the people on my Instagram checking in with me every day tells me that I am not alone.

When the lockdowns end and we get back to doing live shows in front of audiences (hopefully without masks), we will have a lot to talk about, from social distancing to sanitizing our groceries to being locked in the house with our kids. People will want to listen to jokes about all these things, to laugh and to heal. My guess is that online comedy will continue to flourish as well, even with people going back to live events. COVID-19 may go away, but these new online relationships are here to stay.

No More Waiting to Exhale

By Matt Richtel

BOY, DID WE NEED THIS. NOT THE DYING PART, of course. That was barbaric. So too the economy’s vicious slide, and the terror that had us sleeping one eye open as if we could see microscopic bugs creeping on clawed facemasks. All horrible. So stipulated.

And yet. COVID-19 may prove the opportunity of a lifetime.

In the dense forest of fear, we found something we’d long ago lost, not realizing how desperately we need it: silence. By veritable martial law, we were confined with ourselves, loved ones, inside, with our thoughts.

Matt Richtel ’89 is a Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter and bestselling author. His most recent book is An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System. He lives in San Francisco with his family.

The first days tore at us like addicts as we wrestled restless energy, the screaming itch for constant stimulation. To this point, we’d stuck modern life right into the vein: alarm goes off, wake the kids, breakfast on napkin, bathroom with smartphone, into the car (I’m low on gas!), commute with radio and texts, propping up sleeplessness with caffeine and bursts of social media, deadlines, what do I owe to whom and I’ve lost track and I’ve got to squeeze in a relaxing workout! Why does their hotel have more stars than ours and how many miles have I racked up? What the hell is wrong with my marriage?! 

We wondered how the world got so partisan, angry, hostility bubbling from every crevice. It came from us listening to each other growl—reacting, bouncing certitudes around and spinning them up and up. 

Then: The virus. And a kind of rock bottom. Forced slowdown, crashing halt. Commute hour turned neighborhood walk, the news too much to bear so clocked off, dinners got longer and freer-flowing, conversations more substantive and less purposeful, the pizza savored as perhaps the last for a bit, and it grew harder to ignore the parts of ourselves we’ve kept at arm’s length. We saw our marriages and partnerships, and connections to parents and children as if under magnifying glasses in direct sunlight, and things got talked about, and it was good. 

The Disney light pixel-show that usually surrounds us slowed and quieted and we heard in its place a new sound. Was that gratitude? For the jobs or loved ones we didn’t lose, for our relative fortunes, for things real we have and imagined ones we do not. 

Opportunity of a lifetime. To be liberated from external stimulation. Now we know the truth: We can live with ourselves. It’s less hectic, hostile. More creative. Cooperative and neighborly. Loving. Filled with long inhales, longer exhales. 

Admit you didn’t want it to end. Not all of it. Not entirely. You were breathing again. 

You can still.

From the Summer 2020 issue of California.

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