With the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rising by the day in the United States and around the world, and with “shelter-in-place” and “social lockdown” policies in effect around the world, it's difficult to not feel frightened and overwhelmed. Yet alongside the minute-by-minute news updates about the virus's spread, solutions journalists are on the ground reporting on what's working.
The stories in this collection (see below) articulate a range of challenges the pandemic presents to democracies, which typically don’t have the "luxury" of draconian social interventions such as those employed in China to fight the virus. The free flow of information—a free press, government transparency, citizen participation, legislative representation—are hallmarks of a functional democracy; the stories in this collection address the singular challenges to those hallmarks during the global crisis.
South Korea has learned to leverage its democratic strengths such as accurate information, trust in government, and mobilizing civil society to dramatically limit the spread of the virus. The World Health Organization is fighting what it calls an “infodemic” of misinformation about the pandemic by utilizing social media platforms to spread reliable information. Two stories on Voting by Mail examine how the pandemic might affect domestic US elections, and what would be involved in a dramatic scaling up of the system. See the collection Voting from a Quarantine for more solutions journalism on this issue.
Finally, Paid to Stay Home underscores how some western European countries’ social safety nets are likely to lessen the impact of the coronavirus through high levels of trust in government, collective action, and economic security.
Click here for more teaching collections on COVID-19.
- Define “Infodemic” and explain why public health officials are concerned about it.
- Evaluate the trade-off between the potential increase in opportunities for infection with in-person voting stations, and the small, but real, potential for voter fraud with a predominantly Vote by Mail system. Do we want vulnerable populations congregating in large numbers at polling stations? Is there another solution?
- Describe the factors that contribute to what many call the “European Social Safety Net.” How is this “net” different from our systems in the US? Articulate the ways in which such a “safety net” could help ease the impact of the pandemic.
- South Korea, like the US, is a representative democracy. Unlike the US, it responded rapidly to the outbreak with a suite of programs to curb the spread, and did so successfully without imposing what amounts to martial law. What were these programs, and why did South Koreans participate in them so enthusiastically?
- Speculate on the possible dangers of inaccurate or misinformation during a global pandemic. How might misinformation hurt or even kill people? Make it more difficult for health care workers do their job? Undermine the efforts of public health officials?
- While there are many criticisms of the manner in which China handled the epidemic, particularly in its early phases, their authoritarian response—essentially putting almost a billion people on lockdown—ultimately proved more or less effective. If you knew it could potentially save millions of lives, would you be willing to suspend many of your typical rights and freedoms, at least temporarily (as was the case in China)?
- Many public health officials have identified the “infodemic” as an avalanche of misinformation, pseudo-advice, and conflicting statements by government officials that inhibit their ability to combat the spread of the virus. Much of it comes through social media, others from news networks and even government officials. Such uncertainty causes a great deal of population-wide distress and fear.
- Vote by Mail avoids the gathering of crowds, which is obviously preferable in fighting the spread of infection. Although election fraud is rare, what few fraudulent acts occur are evenly distributed between in-person and vote-by-mail. In addition, many states use little or no mail-in voting and would have very little time—and even fewer funds—to institute or enhance programs to scale. Some states, such as Oregon and Utah, have very successful programs, and could be models, especially with federal support to states that are behind. Unfortunately, the recent stimulus package only included $400 million total for all election support activities. Another advantage of mail-in voting is that voter turnout is consistently higher when this system is used.
- The primary elements of the European Social Safety Net are universal health care, pensions, paid sick leave, and robust employment protections. The combination of these factors make several European countries much less vulnerable to the public health and economic ravages of the virus. Because of universal and affordable health care, for example, people aren’t afraid to spend money during the pandemic because they don’t have to worry about large medical bills if they fall ill. Put simply, citizens don’t have to choose between their physical health and paying the rent. The percentage of pay in unemployment is generally much higher, up to 100% of salary, and governments have acted swiftly to provide financial support for businesses.
- The success of South Korea’s response to Covid-19 was born during the SARS epidemic. After that experience, the South Korean government set up elaborate infection crisis protocols, including the dramatic expansion of testing. Within days of the outbreak, they had 53 drive- through testing sites, and were testing up to 15,000 people per day. They implemented a 3-step screening protocol at Inchon International Airport to screen all incoming passengers and flooded the airwaves with public education messages. From the outset, the government provided the latest, most accurate information about the pandemic to its citizens. This education and transparency in turn led to massive participation of civil society in the social distancing measures, further reducing the spread of the virus.
- Student answers will vary, but the idea behind this question is a critical thinking exercise. How do students acquire and consume their news? How do they know if it’s accurate? If they see a story on the internet, do they check its sources, do they look for any other articles from reputable resources that corroborate the information? In a particularly egregious example, an internet video claimed to show a bleach-based concoction that would cure the virus. Scams of pills, snake oil, and vitamin mega doses abound on the internet, aimed mostly at the elderly and desperate. At the other end of the scale, senior government officials regularly contradict their own expert staff about the virus in public statements. Faith in unproved treatments, such as Chloroquine, a malaria drug, have already caused overdoses. Rumors that health care workers carry the virus has led to physicians in India being evicted from their neighborhoods. Closer to home, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the President’s chief medical advisor, has a 24-hour security detail as a result of repeated threats against his life and well-being, simply because he’s telling the truth to the American people.
- Student answers will vary. One fun way to approach this would be to divide students into groups to take on the roles of various interest groups and officials: The President, Surgeon General, congressional leaders, economic advisors, private CEO’s, etc. (Your online teaching platform may have an option to assign participants to different groups.) Students can approach the issue from practical or philosophical perspectives. Communitarianism, the greater good, civil society, all of these might be topics for discussion.