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Examining How COVID-19 Has Changed Policy

Panelists talking about COVID policy in a zoom discussion
Policy panelists, clockwise from top left: Mac McCorkle, Doug Brook, Allan Freyer and Sandy Darity.

Like thousands of Duke students, Senior Olivia Pennoyer’s life changed dramatically in recent weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  But the experience of virtual classes, beginning with “Economics of the Public Sector,” taught by the Sanford School’s Steve Sexton, gave Pennoyer an idea. Pennoyer reached out to another former professor, Sanford’s Christina Gibson-Davis, and suggested an online series. 

The result is the new virtual discussion series “COVID-19: Policy Perspectives,” which launched on April 8, drawing a crowd of about 100 viewers. The series’ second and final event takes place April 15. (See the full discussion here.)

Moderated by Gibson-Davis, the program is cosponsored by the Sanford School, the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity and Polis: Center for Politics.

The series kicked off April 8 with a two-part panel discussion. Mac McCorkle and Doug Brook discussed politics, budgetary issues and policy failures, and Sandy Darity and Allan Freyer highlighted policy responses, social justice issues and the role of nonprofit groups.  

Brook began by asking of the United States’ COVID-19 policy response: “Is it working, and how should it be working?”  He described the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act of 2006, which was intended to help prepare the country for public health emergencies.  He also highlighted the Trump Administration’s National Biodefense Strategy from 2018, which outlined objectives for combating substantial biological threats.

As a self-professed “budget guy,” Brook zeroed in on resource questions: “I always look to see, did we back up our policy with resources, because our conceit in the budget world is if you don’t have resources put against policy, you haven’t really made policy.”

His conclusion: while the U.S. government has examined pandemics’ potential health impacts, government leaders have not adequately assessed economic impacts. 

McCorkle discussed the pandemic’s impact on presidential politics, highlighting the “rally around the flag” effect that boosted President Trump several weeks ago, and the decline in support more recently.  He suggested that if Trump cannot tout a strong economy later this year, “he could have a very, very hard time” facing re-election.  He also wondered how other incumbent elected officials—for example, governors—might fare.  Will they be blamed for COVID-19’s impact, or will they earn credit for helping to steer their state through it?

McCorkle also asked what role the federal government should play in a national crisis.  

“[There has been a] lost opportunity of using federalism in a creative way—for the federal government to have set some national minimums,” McCorkle said. “We still have nine states that still don’t have full state stay-at-home orders.”

Sandy Darity framed his presentation with the question: “Have the demands of the current health and macroeconomic crisis shunted all other initiatives aside, including most profoundly a social justice agenda?”  He emphasized that “the COVID-19 crisis reinforces the importance of the pursuit and establishment of a social justice agenda; in fact, it reinforces the urgency of such measures being taken.”

Darity also discussed a policy idea for which he has earned national renown: the case for reparations for black Americans. 

"The U.S. has the capacity to pay for anything it wants to pay for,” Darity said. “Overnight, we generated $2.3 trillion. It costs $10 trillion to close the black wealth gap. If done over the course of 10 years, it’s clearly financially manageable."  

Darity also said Americans could cope more effectively with the COVID-19 crisis if the nation adopted national health care and a federal jobs guarantee.

Allan Freyer, who also serves as Director of Workers' Rights at the North Carolina Justice Center, highlighted his organization’s work with North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and other states  and national organizations to provide economic support to those who need it.  He warned against the country returning to normalcy too quickly: "The fastest way to kill the economy is to bring people back on the shop floor and hope it’s all going to work out."

Freyer also questioned systems and laws hindering the distribution of economic support.  

"We’re dealing with a mass pandemic through mass unemployment,” he said.  “We didn’t need to take this road.  Ireland, the U.K., France, and Germany are using work-sharing and automatic payments directly to businesses to keep workers on payroll."

More than 100 people -- comprising students, faculty, staff, alumni, Durham community members and others -- attended the virtual event.  The video can be found here.  

The next installment of the “COVID-19: Policy Perspectives” series takes place on April 15 and features four Sanford professors presenting on two new topics: 

•    Steve Sexton and Nathan Boucher: “Policy Tradeoffs in the Fight Against COVID-19” -- 4:00pm to 4:45pm
•    Deondra Rose and Eric Mlyn: “Higher Education, Politics, and COVID-19” -- 4:45pm to 5:30pm

Click here to register to attend the April 15 panel discussion.