10 things we learned at Brookings in March

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March 2020 was the month in which the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global pandemic. Before and since, Brookings experts have examined different policy responses to the widening global crisis. For more, visit the COVID-19 page on our website.

1. What grocery workers need as they work the front lines of COVID-19

grocery worforceFrom left: Lisa Harris, Amber Stevens, Matt Milzman, and Courtney Meadows

Molly Kinder examines how “grocery workers … are working at a frantic pace to keep Americans fed and alive, and risking their own health in the process.” Kinder argues that “employers need to implement immediate steps to reduce grocery workers’ exposure to COVID-19” and concludes that “we owe them not only gratitude, but the protection, support, and compensation they deserve.”


An employee wearing a face mask works on a car seat assembly line at Yanfeng Adient factory in Shanghai, China, as the country is hit by an outbreak of a new coronavirus, February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Aly SongGeoffrey Gertz writes that “while [the] human toll is undoubtedly the most tragic cost of the disease, the looming economic costs are also beginning to draw attention from policymakers, companies, and investors.” Examining the “chokepoints of globalization” in the complex, interconnected global system, Gertz notes that “As quarantines shut down individual factories and travel restrictions curb the flow of people and goods, the economic disruption will spread, virus-like, through global supply chains.”

3. A Better way to help students repay student loans

college graduate

The recently enacted CARES Act–the $2 trillion economic support package–includes a provision to allow employers to help pay down employees’ student loan debt without being taxed. Adam Looney argued that “there are many alternative ways to provide relief to student borrowers” and that this provision would be regressive by giving “loan relief to those who need it least.” The “best approach,” Looney concluded, “is to transition to a system of automatic income-driven repayment and a concurrent rehabilitation of existing loans.”

4. Trump’s presidency is failing

U.S. President Donald Trump is accompanied by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, coronavirus task force members and industry executives as he takes questions at a news conference where he declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Elaine Kamarck, author of many books including Why Presidents Fail And How They Can Succeed Again, says that “Trump’s presidency is failing rapidly.” Kamarck observes how “Trump’s failures during the coronavirus pandemic run the gamut from the rhetorical to the organizational” and that “Trump has failed to learn from the failures of his predecessors.” She concludes that “this tragedy teaches us many things about preparedness and public health, but it also warns us about the dangers of presidents who are manifestly unprepared to govern.”

5. The limits of populism in responding to the coronavirus pandemic

Employees from a disinfection company sanitize a bench as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus, at Beirut's seaside Corniche, Lebanon March 5, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed AzakirThomas Wright and Kurt Campbell observe that “Over the past decade, the world has grown more authoritarian, nationalistic, xenophobic, unilateralist, anti-establishment, and anti-expertise. The current state of politics and geopolitics has exacerbated, not stabilized, the [coronavirus] crisis.” Wright and Campbell say that this crisis may exact a higher toll than the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the global financial collapse of 2008, and “has demonstrated the limits of populism as a method of government,” but institutions, expertise, and the global community must address it together.

6. Automation will REplace jobs in a COVID-19 recession

A worker looks out from a near empty restaurant on North Avenue during the coronavirus outbreak in New Rochelle, New York, U.S., March 11, 2020. REUTERS/Mike SegarMark Muro, Jacob Whiton, and Robert Maxim write that “any coronavirus-related recession is likely to bring about a spike in labor-replacing automation.” Automation, they explain, happens in bursts, and in bad economic times employers replace lower-skilled human workers with technology and higher-skilled, and more productive, workers. These researchers add that “it is low-income workers, the young, and workers of color who will be vulnerable if this pandemic shoves the nation into a recession,” who are the workers we see today on the frontlines of food service, transportation, and production.

7. Use Summer school to help students disadvantaged by online learning

A teacher conducts a lesson in a classroomDouglas Harris writes that as schools cancel classes for the rest of the year and move to online learning, low-income students especially will be disadvantaged. He argues “not only that students learn less in online environments, compared with in person, but that disadvantaged students learn the least.” Harris concludes that despite the use of modern technology “it’s best to fight the old-fashioned way. Summer school seems like one very promising approach to consider,” and funds should be made available to help implement the learning and teachers’ pay.

8. Where is government’s COVID-19 response money coming from?

Inscription COVID-19 on white background. World Health Organization WHO introduced new official name for Coronavirus disease named COVID-19Louise Sheiner and David Wessel answer key questions about where the U.S. and other countries are getting the trillions of dollars they are spending to shore up economies in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. For example, is there unlimited money? No, they say, “[t]here is only so much the government can borrow without raising interest rates and crowding out private investment. That would hurt economic growth. But with interest rates at historic lows (inflation-adjusted, or real, interest rates are actually negative), there is a lot of room to increase borrowing without having to worry too much right now about impairing private investment.”


FILE PHOTO: A patient infected with coronavirus is carried on a stretcher by a French rescue team before being transferred by a helicopter of the civil security (Securite Civile) from Strasbourg university hospital to Pforzheim in Germany as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in France, March 24, 2020. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/File PhotoBonnie Jenkins reflects on lessons learned from the creation of the Global Health Security Agenda in 2014 to the present. “Despite some progress on the goals of the GHSA, we are still not as prepared as we could be,” she writes, noting funding cuts, a decrease in field staff, and lost leadership positions, including the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense that the Trump administration closed in 2018. Looking forward, Jenkins argues that the GHSA “provides a foundation for the global community to better meet the challenges of infectious disease threats while working with international partners like the World Health Organization … We need to work with and strengthen the mechanisms we have in place.”

10. How to contain the coronavirus spread in Africa, and limit economic damage

A Woman wears a protective mask as she walks on a street in Adjame an area of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Luc Gnago
Brahima Sangafowa Coulibaly and Pace Madden, writing in mid-March when the coronavirus cases were relatively low in Africa, wrote that African leaders should “use this window of opportunity to take decisive steps to protect their citizens and economies from the pandemic.” Coulibaly and Madden proposed three strategies: contain the virus, swiftly treat cases, and cushion their economies. “If these measures are implemented, the human casualties will be limited, and Africa’s economic growth will decline by around 1 percentage point or possibly less.”