The societal impacts of COVID-19 are enormous, but what can we do to lessen, reverse and even thrive in the face of that impact? An online seminar hosted on October 9 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (DBASSE) featured a series of presentations that considered this question in relation to different industries and challenges. Speakers across two sessions covered topics such as the public trust of a COVID-19 vaccine, coping with collective trauma of the pandemic, and addressing learning disparities amongst school systems as a result of COVID-19. Throughout, they demonstrated the importance of the social, behavioral and economic sciences in policy making and societal restructuring, reminding audiences that the social, behavioral and economic scientists – while they may have to deliver their message multiple times – must remember that their work matters.
The speakers in its first session were Abram Wagner, research assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Roxane Cohen Silver, professor of psychological science, medicine and public health at the University of California Irvine School of Social Ecology, and Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Courtney Sales Ross University Professor of Globalization and Education at New York University-Steinhardt.
Wagner’s talk on trust and vaccine hesitancy opened the first session. He pointed out that society is missing the human face on the virus. Studies suggest that if people witness the impact of the virus firsthand, then they are more likely to receive a vaccine for the virus.
Cohen Silver spoke about the challenge for researchers to get into policy and evidence translation spaces, the importance of social, behavioral and economic sciences with unusual findings, and replication studies. She emphasized the characteristics of COVID-19 that make it so different from previous traumatic experiences. As an invisible, ambiguous threat, the virus has impacted society in new ways. As such, policy-relevant research must be prospective, identifying at risk samples before the event, longitudinal, or immediate and repeated post-event, and regional and national. She argues that the social sciences and humanities have a critical role in rigorous research on the pandemic’s impact on society, particularly on the younger generations.
This in turn led to Yoshikawa’s discussion, which focused on the need to support schools, communities and school systems in the wake of COVID-19. He highlighted lower access to technology for learning by impoverished groups and suggested several opportunities for expansion of community school approaches, desegregation policies, and financing that addresses the inequity of school systems nationwide. Expanding AmeriCorps or providing expanded health, mental health, nutrition and family support, for instance, could help keep students in school as well as combat the distribution gap between students.
The second session featured Jeffrey C. Johnson, professor of anthropology at the University of Florida, who spoke on the pandemic’s impact on food supply chains, particularly independent restaurants. His research revealed that restaurant-supply networks play a more pivotal role in the resilience and sustainability of the U.S. food supply than realized. As independent restaurants have had trouble adjusting to take out services or providing business to small scale farm producers, Johnson’s findings remind us that new strategies must be built for more resiliency in supply networks.
Enrica Ruggs, assistant professor of management at the University of Memphis Fogelman College, spoke on the differential impact by COVID-19 on workplaces and the adjustments needed to ensure employee well-being and support. She addressed the crucial question of how organization responses can mitigate or magnify effects on employees, such as in health, particularly among Black and Hispanic people in the US. Her research showed racial disparities in unemployment rates rising between February to April 2020, with Hispanic and Black workers hit hardest, with those higher-than-usual unemployment rates remaining for non-white groups through today. Ruggs suggested federal protections for basic living, long-term planning and increased support based on income and unemployment, and action around systemic racism, particularly in occupations like healthcare and criminal justice.
Lastly, Judy Chevalier, William S. Beinecke Professor of Finance and Economics at the Yale School of Management, discussed a very specific, but also important, subset of workers: care workers in nursing homes. Her work on the dangers created by an the widespread movement across nursing homes of care workers. Using cell-phone location data, Chevalier’s study indicated that cross-movement across nursing homes is not only frequent and common, but necessary since the positions tend to pay poorly and so workers take on extra shifts at other locales. This in turn creates infection vectors that puts both the workers and residents at greater risk of COVID-19.
Throughout each industry discussed, the sessions revealed a need for better systems to protect all of us physically, mentally and emotionally. Their underlying messages reinforced the idea that investing in one evidence-based solution in one area will almost inevitably reap the benefit in multiple areas. The sessions also emphasized the need to tap into existing research while linking all discipline for new research to address 2020’s many challenges. Because we are all interconnected, researchers, academics and policy makers must try to change policy by bridging together research from different disciplines. These are not moral dilemmas, and human decisions are the economic decisions.
DBASSE hosted the seminar in collaboration with the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, the Consortium of Social Science Associations, the Federation of Brain and Behavioral Sciences, and SAGE Publishing (the parent of Social Science Space).