Could The Coronavirus Reset Society? Questions We Should Be Asking About Postpandemic Life

By Brendan Kiley The Seattle Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Brenda Kiley takes a look at the potential reverberations we may see from the major economic and health decisions being made right now. Reverberations that may be felt for years, even decades to come.

SEATTLE

Hotel rooms for the homeless. Food-chain and sanitation workers hailed as national heroes. A Republican-led federal government flooding the country with easy money. Governors putting the brakes on evictions. A new national obsession with hand-washing and the finer points of epidemiology.

The coronavirus pandemic has even reduced air pollution in cities across the globe, including Seattle, as cars and trucks stay off the road, though not enough to make a dent in climate-change projections.

Few political analysts, social workers or doctors would have dared such dreams just four months ago.

But life has changed, the twin pressures of the coronavirus pandemic and economy-snarling lockdown have stretched the borders of what we thought was possible.

Which brings big questions: Will any of this stick around? Has this event loosened up parts of our social machinery that, just a few months ago, seemed unchangeable? What decisions are we making now that could have huge reverberations for years, even decades, into the future?

"I think the stay-at-home order has gone on for so long, with people living under a drastically different set of rules, that there's a chance for a real reset, a reboot," said Nicole Grant, executive secretary-treasurer of MLK Labor Council, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO federation of labor unions. "The inertia for the old ways of doing things is gone. We get to decide for ourselves now, as a people, as a country, how we want things to be." Maybe.

Aaron Katz, principal lecturer at the University of Washington School of Public Health, is more cautious about major institutional change. The pandemic, for example, has exposed risky fissures in our health care system: medical supply shortages, and infected people who aren't detected quickly, including the uninsured and people with deductibles so high, they're reluctant to see doctors if they're feeling sick.

Could this move the U.S. closer to comprehensive health care?

"I've been in this game a long time, 45 years, and I wouldn't bet a lot of shekels on anything bringing us into a universal health care system anytime soon," he said. "The system as it's structured generates so much money for people and organizations, it creates a huge bow wave against any change."

That, he says, could be true for other big systems as well.

Either way, we are living in a pause of sorts, an interval where experts, local and national, are thinking about what we're learning from this event, and what opportunities we might miss if we slide back to the old status quo. "If you look at history, you often see big social change follow from crisis," said Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University. "This is an opportunity for a big change: a reconnection to the idea of a common good, collective responsibility."

This survey of ideas is nowhere near complete, and the sources quoted know their views are not consensus. Consider it a tasting menu of what's being debated as we grope toward recovery.

Randy Engstrom, director of the city's Office of Arts & Culture, says Seattle, first hit by the pandemic, one of the first headed out of it, is on the front edge of REImagining what the new normal might look like. From REI to Amazon, he argued, Seattle is an innovation machine.

"Our great ability is to do what we've always done," he said. "Which is invent the future."

Will COVID-19 epidemiology increase mass surveillance?

Some of that invention is happening in places, and with consequences, you might not expect. How we use technology to map this pandemic could have enormous, permanent effects.

First, a little background: For years, thinkers in the inner circles of tech have been waging a serious debate about data: Who "owns" it? Where should it be stored?

One camp thinks data is best aggregated by large entities: big government, big tech. The other camp argues for a more "federated" approach, with data encrypted and dispersed among devices and networks.

The pandemic has supercharged that debate, and the stakes are extraordinarily high.

"This is a pivotal moment," said Blaise Aguera y Arcas, a leading, Seattle-based thinker about artificial intelligence and privacy at Google. "It's a moral imperative to use the technology we've built to save lives, and now there's a fork in the road. Do we do it in a federated, decentralized way that protects privacy, or do we double down on surveillance, which becomes visible to an entity at the center that can police it?"

Tracing COVID-19 exposure through cellphones is one example. Say I test positive for the virus. Centralized approach: My phone's GPS data recalls every device I've been near (minutes on a bus, hours in an apartment), then tells a government agency, which could see that network and send an alert to all those devices. Federated approach: Using encrypted, peer-to-peer communication, or via an anonymous server, my phone could alert those other devices without the contact network being seen by a central authority. Importantly, Aguera y Arcas explained, using federated tools wouldn't leave us epidemiologically blind.

"Secure aggregation, for example, is a set of tools that can give you statistical insights without giving you the raw data," he said. "Transmission hot spots, superspreaders, you can look at that information without surveilling anyone."

Advocates for, Aguera y Arcas said, argue it's a more obvious choice, it'd be faster and cheaper to develop, many of the components are already built, a more comprehensive view would be more effective and that data is more secure behind the fortress of a colossal entity (big government, big tech).

The final assertion is an especially heated point of debate.

The choice we make now, Aguera y Arcas said, will have immense repercussions, if we go the centralized surveillance route, we can't unring that bell once COVID is over. The tools could be used for other, less virtuous purposes. "It's possible to use this kind of situation to create a surveillance regime that someone like Putin would be very, very pleased about," he said. "Saving lives now, but causing long-term harm."

The coronavirus crisis has revealed another kind of data urgency that had been felt in some circles for years, disaggregating data by race.

Andrea Pastor, senior economic adviser for the city of Portland, Ore., says the pandemic has deeply underscored the importance of tracking outcomes along racial lines.

As has been widely reported, coronavirus has hit Black and brown communities particularly hard for many reasons, including access to high-quality health care, but not all states are reporting that information and, as recently as March, members of Congress were petitioning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for better racial breakdowns of COVID-19 data.

The lack of data, in some cases, has become news.

Now that we're paying more attention, Pastor said, data of all kinds should be disaggregated by race, especially in coronavirus-recovery efforts.

"We should have been doing this all along," she said, "but we have the opportunity right now to track data and outcomes in real time, we can see if we're getting it right and course-correct as we go."

Pastor suspects seeing the data has also made people more aware of our systemic inequity. "We're only as secure as the least secure members of our community," she said. "That's been known for a very long time, but now it's front page news. I think that has sticking power, a lot of leadership feels like they have the bully pulpit to make big moves. The limiting factor, unfortunately, is what we can do with our budgets. How are we going to prioritize?"

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