We need to take bold action to contain coronavirus, say Harvard experts

March 19, 2020, 6:11 PM UTC

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What should the public sector be doing to address the coronavirus?  What should governments be doing? How can we anticipate the problems still to come?

The Kennedy School of Government has put together a compelling list of short essays from experts in their community, designed to help frame the extent of the problems coronavirus is causing and explore ideas that might work and actions to be taken immediately.

Much of it affirms what we are already coming to terms with.

Get used to feeling that your life is disrupted, says Juliette Kayyem, the former assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security under the Obama administration. “[W]e have quickly moved from the containment phase to the mitigation one,” she says. It’s time to keep your distance and get over it. “It is the nature of a pandemic that has no ‘start’ moment, so the right timing is always a guesstimate—too late, and you miss your window; too soon, and you may interrupt unnecessarily. But this is the new normal. Disruption is the plan.”

“Who would have thought that new norms about hand washing would become a crucial global governance issue?” notes Professor Kathryn Sikkink, whose work studies international norms and the impact of human rights laws. “And yet this appears to be the single most important action individuals can take.”

Linda J. Bilmes, the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and public finance expert, calls for a complete re-prioritization of the U.S. budget. “We can’t depend on the trickle-down of federal ‘emergency’ dollars to states and local governments, which can take months or years,” she says. “We must take advantage of historically low interest rates to spend money on health care and economic survival.”

Click through for more specific ideas about health care delivery and rapid system change.

Longtime raceAhead readers will be delighted to find Nadja West in the mix, the 44th Surgeon General of the U.S Army and former commanding general of the Army’s Medical Command, now a Hauser Fellow at the Kennedy School.

Her leadership philosophy became clear during my interview with her at the 2018 Most Powerful Women Summit, which started with a pre-social distancing hug (sigh). Her operational expertise, as a person formerly responsible for transforming how the military delivers health care, is understanding how systems and technologies impact people within a health care ecosystem.

But her human expertise speaks directly to the heart of the matter: “If we can train empathy, we can make almost any change happen.”

In her Harvard piece, she refers back to “the boring basics” of leadership—lead by example, communicate early and often, and trust your teams to do their work. But transparency is key. “Be truthful and consistent and provide honest assessments. This will reduce confusion, distrust and panic while increasing compliance,” she writes. Information flow, whether the news is good or bad, is what matters.

She suggests that if you’re in a position to communicate about the coronavirus and its many implications, it’s time to reign in any self-dealing, injustice collecting or petty politics

Put another way, it’s time to put away childish things, however they manifest for you.

“Toxic leadership is never appropriate,” she says. “[A]n oppressive environment during a public health emergency can lead to fear, mistrust, hiding of issues or concerns, and adverse outcomes.”

Ellen McGirt

On Point

Schoolwork-from-home is going to be harder for some kids than others Kids from lower-income households are already having connectivity problems at home, which is going to put them at a major disadvantage as classes and assignments move to online-only. According to data from Pew Research, some 35% of households with children ages 6 to 17 and with an annual income below $30,000 a year do not have a high-speed internet connection at home. And one-in-five teens from low-income households say they lack the resources, like a computer, to do school work from home.
Pew Research

Stores create special hours for coronavirus-vulnerable shoppers It’s a thoughtful and smart move. Stores like grocery chains, Target, and Walmart, are opening their doors exclusively to older and other at-risk populations first thing in the morning before the general population and after the premises are deep cleaned overnight. Find a partial list below, contact stores in your area for their plans.

Broadsheet readers have tips If you’re working at home with children, Broadsheet readers have some ideas on how to cope with the new normal. Plan and schedule everything, for starters. “I’ve even mapped out all of my soon-to-be 5-year-old’s snacks each day and am packing his lunch at night. Anything to eliminate decision-making during the day so my brain can focus as much as possible on work," one reader suggests. Another popular one is to turn kids into interns—an opportunity for colleagues to enjoy the occasional kid sighting on the Zoom machine.

Youth sports coaches have tips Seasons and long-awaited tournaments are being cancelled. While the crowd-bans are tough on the fans of the pros, for student-athletes, the abrupt end to their seasons can be particularly painful. The non-profit Positive Coaching Alliance has some tips for parents, coaches, and administrators. First, make it a leadership lesson. “The sacrifices they will make during this crisis ask them to draw on the very lessons they've learned through sports: to be resilient, have a growth mindset and become leaders in and out of sports,” they say. Then, find creative ways to keep student-athletes engaged—like scheduling an online hangout in lieu of regular practice, to report on individual workout progress, and to share training and motivation tips.
Positive Coaching Alliance

On Background

Remembering Fannie Lou Hamer Chuck Reece, the editor behind The Bitter Southerner, a literary treasure that explores the complex legacy of the American South, begins this tribute to the civil rights icon with a confession. He was well into middle age before he knew who she was. He grew up watching the civil rights movement on television, and had working familiarity with Martin Luther King, Jr. “But we were blind to the historical context of all that conflict we saw every night on TV, because we were schooled in the old United Daughters of the Confederacy curriculum.” He took a couple of Civil War history courses, but never read Georgia’s 1861 declaration of secession from the U.S. When he heard Hamer’s name invoked at the opening of a civil rights museum, he felt embarrassed to find that he had never heard of her. He has now.
The Bitter Southerner

We weren’t ready for a pandemic Three months before the pandemic drove us into isolation, the U.S. Naval War College and the National Center for Disaster Medicine & Public Health began a war-game simulation they called Urban Outbreak. The goal, a researcher and game designer told Fortune’s Clifton Leaf, was to simulate how a population would deal with “a profoundly dangerous and complex problem set”—in this case, the sudden arrival of a deadly pathogen in a fictional city called Olympia. The Olympians weren’t ready, and neither were we.

How studying ethnography can help you be less biased This post from Mandy Jenkins, a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, really focuses on journalism, and how it can better define objectivity and defeat dreaded both-siderism. But it’s really about how to be a better, less biased observer, which is something that requires “the empathetic methods of design thinking and the analysis of the social sciences.” Ethnography is the study of people and cultures, which is also what journalists, marketers, salespeople, product designers, justice professionals, policymakers and a whole host of other people do without framing it that way. To that end, power dynamics are key. “One element of reflexivity is understanding how the presence of a researcher—or, in this case, a journalist—changes the environment,” she writes.

Tamara El-Waylly produces raceAhead and manages the op-ed program.


“This morning a White House official referred to #Coronavirus as the ‘Kung-Flu’ to my face. Makes me wonder what they’re calling it behind my back.”

—CBS News White House Correspondent Weijia Jiang tweeted on Tuesday.

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