Policy in the Time of COVID-19
by Abby Bratton | published Sep. 12th, 2020
The World Health Organization officially characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11, 2020. In the months since, the U.S. government has implemented a number of laws on both the federal and state levels to minimize the impact of the virus. In the midst of this disruption, the standard functions of government continue. Legislation unrelated to COVID-19 is still pursued, debated, passed and enacted. However, even public policy with no clear connection to the coronavirus is affected by the pandemic.
The Passage of Policy
“Everything comes down to government,” said Dr. Samuel McQuade, a professor in RIT’s Department of Public Policy, referring to both COVID-19 and broader matters of crisis response and public anxiety.
"Everything comes down to government."
The U.S. government's prioritization of crisis management for the pandemic is evidenced through legislation like the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a federal economic relief package signed into law on March 27, 2020. Significant media attention has also been given to COVID-19.
With such intense focus on the coronavirus, concerns were raised that policymakers might try to pass other legislation unnoticed during this time that would normally draw more controversy. These concerns are evident in articles with loaded titles like "Congress Tries to Sneak Through Dangerous Spying Bill Under the Cover of the Coronavirus Crisis" published by Common Dreams on March 11, 2020 and "Republicans Tried to Sneak Abortion Restrictions into the Coronavirus Bill" published by Vice Media on March 13, 2020.
Nathan Lee, founder of the nonprofit research organization CivicPulse and assistant professor in RIT’s Department of Public Policy, believes this should not be a cause for alarm.
“The United States has one of the most robust and wide-ranging civil societies in the world, and by that I mean a vast number of nonprofits and think tanks and advocacy organizations, and many of them have specific missions that they are concerned with,” he said.
As Lee explained, these groups play an important role in advocacy and awareness of public causes. Even during this pandemic, their purpose remains unchanged. They continue to raise support for certain policies, protest others and ensure public attention is given to the issues they care about.
“If you’re an environmental defense fund and you’re concerned about climate change, you might modify your messaging during COVID-19 but you’re not going to stop worrying about climate change,” Lee said.
This civil society also impacts government focus.
“The nice thing about the United States is you can take some solace in the fact that these stakeholders in civil society are going to kind of keep governments from over-allocating their attention away from these topics,” he explained.
As he pointed out, concerns over how much coverage is given to potentially controversial policies are not unique to these pandemic times. Most people just don't have the time to keep up with every major political issue, even under the best of circumstances.
Of course, the intense attention given to the coronavirus is still unorthodox. Such detailed coverage allows for facts and safety procedures to be spread more easily, but it may have some detrimental effects as well.
“When we think about the media and where the media’s attention is going to go, there is a danger that we kind of collectively take our eye off the ball excessively,” Lee said.
Even during a pandemic, it is critical to pay attention and stay informed on other issues.
Public Anxiety and Privacy Concerns
“The most disturbing fact [about pandemics], other than the natural spread of these diseases without vaccines, is the fear,” McQuade commented.
This is not an unwarranted statement. A Gallup poll released on April 16, 2020 found that 57 percent of Americans are worried about contracting the virus, while 48 percent of Americans are worried about experiencing severe financial hardship because of it.
Another likely focal point of current public anxieties may be privacy, according to Lee.
“There’s more inroads sometimes made against privacy during crises,” Lee said.
"There’s more inroads sometimes made against privacy during crises."
In terms of privacy concerns specific to COVID-19, he cited contact tracing as one relevant example. Contact tracing is a process through which everyone a COVID-19 patient had close contact with while infectious is contacted and informed of their potential exposure. In order for contact tracing to be effective, the people conducting it require access to names and locations of patients and their contacts; this raises potential issues in violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
“I think there is an important conversation going on about how to navigate that,” Lee continued.
Because of this relevance to the ongoing pandemic response, Lee doesn’t think significant privacy legislation is likely to be passed without public scrutiny.
“I would be surprised if major legislation that dramatically affected privacy was able to pass Congress without significant media attention, because it’s kind of directly related to the crisis at hand. I think the bigger concern would be things that seem completely unrelated,” he said.
When considering the full impact of COVID-19 on government functions, it’s important to look past issues of policy focus, public attention and privacy. According to an article published by BBC News on April 30, 2020, there is a significant risk of recession in countries across the world, with the global economy predicted to shrink by 3 percent in 2020. The number of people filing for unemployment in the U.S. has reached a record high. Even after the pandemic, resource allocation will be impacted by these long-term economic effects. There is also the direct toll of the virus. As of Sept. 1, 2020, the New York Times reported a total of 183,400 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. alone.
Even in the face of these serious issues, Lee remains optimistic about moving forward after the pandemic.
“One of the positive things that could come out of this is more of a sense of shared fate between different groups of people that might allow for some more bipartisan legislation, and bipartisan discussions about policies that have maybe today remained sort of intractable,” he said.
In other words, even as COVID-19 forces people physically apart, they may find a way to come together and stand united.