FOR ALMOST TWO YEARS, the coronavirus has battered the world, with millions of deaths and hundreds of millions of cases. This winter’s omicron variant surge is just the latest example of the pandemic’s unpredictable trajectory. It has resulted in personal tragedy for many. It has left survivors with long-COVID-19 symptoms, and it has overwhelmed health care systems and caused burnout among health workers. It has changed our behavior, acquainting people with mask wearing and social distancing. It has changed the way we work, forcing the fortunate to work remotely and resulting in furloughs or layoffs or constant risk of exposure for the less fortunate. And it has been an impetus to scientific innovation, with effective vaccines created and distributed at a historic pace.

The world is a different place from what it was two years ago, and we are still learning to live with all the sorrow and change the pandemic has brought. At the same time, COVID-19 has taught us a lot. Through the global crisis, we have reevaluated aspects of our societies and examined what is working—and what isn’t.

Here HKS faculty members and other experts examine lessons learned during the pandemic.


National suffering and solidarity

Matthew Baum and John Della Volpe

Mathew Baum and John Della Volpe

It is difficult to conceive of anything good borne of COVID-19. As of this writing, in the United States, more than 700,000 are dead; 5 million have fallen worldwide. Millions of us grieve the untimely loss of a family member, a loved one, or a friend. And while our team of researchers from the Covid States Project has charted the extreme stress, anxiety, and depression so many Americans are facing, we also have found reason for optimism. 

Partnership between the public and private sectors has spurred tremendous innovation in vaccine development and distribution logistics, which will likely prove enormously beneficial in the future, both with routine vaccines and with future pandemics. COVID-19 has also provided a rare real-time window into the workings of science, which while not universally helpful, provides valuable education for many people. Life-saving developments like these are probably why the public’s trust in science has largely remained intact while trust in other institutions has fallen since we began tracking such measures in April 2020. In a recent wave of more than 21,000 interviews across 50 states and the District of Columbia, we found that 92% of American adults trust doctors and hospitals, nearly 90% trust scientists and researchers, 78% trust the CDC, 74% trust pharmaceutical companies, and 68% trust Dr. Anthony Fauci on how best to deal with the coronavirus. Although overall levels of confidence in the scientific community remain very strong in general, evidence suggests that trust has eroded somewhat over the past 18 months and bears watching.

“While our country and many communities feel as divided as they have ever been in our lifetimes, the bonds of family (whether nuclear or chosen) are stronger.”

Matt Baum and John Della Volpe

Additionally, the coronavirus has provided oxygen for many of us to reevaluate priorities and life choices, including family, work, and career. The racial reckoning that followed the death of George Floyd in 2020 would most likely not have been as profound if tens of millions of American families had not been locked down, watching the gruesome news coverage, and pressured by often younger family members to confront and discuss systemic racism and the sins of America’s past that led to the murder and civil unrest. 

Today, millions of Americans, especially Millennials and Generation Z, are reconsidering what it means to be happy and live a fulfilling and purposeful life. The effects of their decisions are now recognized by economists and businesses in need of labor, but the values leading to workforce changes have been developing for more than a decade, only to be supercharged during the pandemic. While our country and many communities feel as divided as they have ever been in our lifetimes, the bonds of family (whether nuclear or chosen) are stronger. 

More than 18 months ago, Amanda Gorman offered comfort to a nation that was unaware of the inordinate loss soon headed its way. She said, in part:

We ignite not in the light, but in lack thereof,
For it is in loss that we truly learn to love.
In this chaos, we will discover clarity.
In suffering, we must find solidarity.

As science leads us to a brighter 2022, let’s hope that through our national suffering we can once again discover what’s important, not just for ourselves but for the nation.

Matthew Baum, the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications, and John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, are among the team involved with the Covid States Project, a multi-university collaboration of researchers in a range of fields, who have examined behaviors and outcomes across the United States since March 2020.


Understanding the “Shecession”

Hannah Riley Bowles

Q: How is the intersection of race and gender at play for working mothers during the COVID-19 recovery phase?

Hannah Riley Bowles headshot.

The most detailed data we have is from a survey conducted by Women and Public Policy Program Fellow Alicia Modestino, which consisted of a national panel of 2,500 working parents between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day (May 10 to June 21) of 2020. These data, collected at the onset of the pandemic, indicated that women accounted for more than half of unemployed workers (consonant with other economic studies), with Black and Hispanic women suffering outsize job losses at 9.5% and 8.3%, respectively. This gender disparity in labor market outcomes, often dubbed the “She-cession,” reflected the disproportionate toll on female workers, who were more likely to hold in-person jobs in affected industries such as hospitality, childcare, and health care.

A distinctive strength of this survey was that it collected information on whether childcare conflicts directly contributed to job losses. In contrast, other studies could only infer why women with children were displaced from the labor market. Modestino and colleagues found that 26% of unemployed mothers reported a lack of childcare as the reason for losing their jobs, compared with 14% of unemployed fathers. Their time-use data confirm that COVID-19 made work-life balance disproportionately difficult for women, with significant increases in time spent on schoolwork and playing with children as well as cooking and cleaning. In comparison, men reported only small increases in basic household chores. Women of color were more likely to have those experiences. For example, the survey showed that 23% of Black women—versus 15% of non-Black women—reported that their hours were reduced due to a lack of childcare.

Thanks to a gift to WAPPP from the Jessica Hoffman Brennan Gender Inequality and COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Research Fund for research on the effects of the pandemic on women’s labor-market participation, Modestino and I are launching a study to explore working mothers’ experiences during the COVID-19 recovery phase from an intersectional perspective, disaggregating data by race, income, education, and other demographics. We also seek to investigate the role of negotiations in “shock resilience”—namely, how negotiating with partners, employers, coworkers, immediate and extended family members, friends, and others who make up formal and informal support systems can help women manage family and paid labor.

“With the closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, household dynamics became a significant factor in determining labor outcomes for women.”

Hannah Riley Bowles

Q: How has the shock to childcare during COVID-19 varied among women with different household dynamics?

With the closure of schools during the pandemic, household dynamics became a significant factor in determining labor outcomes for women. In Modestino’s survey, women were more likely to report losses in work status if they were single, divorced, separated, or widowed (22% for not married versus 15% for married). Women living in households with annual incomes below $75,000 were also significantly more likely to report that difficulties with childcare had had an adverse effect on their labor-market participation. This effect was more acute for women with small children and those holding in-person jobs.

Q: Working mothers have been hit hard. How can policy support them?

The Modestino survey data suggest that access to paid family leave, remote-work arrangements, and childcare subsidies were the most important policies in enabling women to remain fully employed. Equally or even more important was the support of managers and coworkers—suggesting that formal policies and practices need to be backed up by family-friendly work cultures.

Access to backup childcare was another important factor that varied across communities, with lower-income families more likely to rely on family support networks. However, although 24% of working parents reported having access to paid family leave, only 4% had used it during the pandemic. Even worse, working parents who identify as Black or Hispanic are less likely to work in jobs that offer paid sick time and medical leave or to have COVID-19 policies available to them such as backup childcare subsidies and working from home.

Again, looking forward, we seek to understand what critical factors enable working mothers to recover from the pandemic, including formal and informal supports for managing work and family.

Roy E. Larsen Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Management Hannah Riley Bowles is a codirector of the Center for Public Leadership and the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP). Her research focuses on gender, negotiation, career advancement, and work-family conflict.

Lessons from digital government

David Eaves

David Eaves headshot

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital service groups and digital government experts around the world started to codify what a good digital crisis response could look like. These efforts have resulted in documents such as the California Digital Crisis Standard, developed by the state’s COVID-19 response team. Another example comes from Ontario, where the digital service group leveraged previous work in Alberta to quickly deploy a COVID-19 self-assessment in days, helping lower call volumes to government help desks and reducing stress for citizens.

The broad takeaway is that in a crisis, tried-and-true practices become even more critical to executing digital service delivery. The experiences of California and Ontario tell us that:

  1. Working in the open enables learning
    In a national emergency, working in the open allows multiple service providers—within the same governing system or outside it—to learn from one another, accelerating development timelines and surfacing creative solutions. The California Digital Crisis Standard was made possible by work that was shared, while the story of Alberta and Ontario demonstrates that leveraging others’ work can radically reduce the cost and time to deploy government services.
  2. There is always time for user testing
    While some may view user testing as a time-consuming luxury that has no place in rapid crisis response, the experiences of California and Ontario highlight the importance of prioritizing user needs. If anything, user testing is more important in a crisis, because the consequences are more serious if services do not work for users.
  3. Clear communication is essential
    Both examples underscore the importance of communicating simply and clearly with users of digital services. Doing so can reduce panic and confusion while creating trust between users and the government agencies managing the services.

Looking Ahead
The experiences of California and Ontario don’t hold all the answers for an effective digital crisis response. No two crises are the same, and some degree of improvisation will always be necessary. But taking time to develop a framework for response—to understand how normal working processes might change or stay the same—helps mitigate the pressure teams face while handling any crisis. More important, the work that California and Ontario appeared to do “on the fly” was really the result of years of capacity building, changing policies, and acquiring the right talent to change how government works. The crisis just made the value of those new ways of working more apparent.

Digital service groups need to think proactively about how crises affect the development and deployment of digital technologies in the public realm and build a standard that draws on the elements of impactful crisis responses like those in California and Ontario.

Lecturer in Public Policy David Eaves, with coeditor Lauren Lombardo MPP 2021, produced a policy brief titled “2020 State of Digital Transformation,” with lessons from digital government service units that responded quickly and effectively to the pandemic. The excerpt above is an adaptation of material from this brief.

Executive education will never be the same

Debra Iles

Debra Iles headshot

Only six weeks after we shuttered our offices due to the onset of COVID-19, in April 2020, HKS Executive Education brought together participants for our first pivoted online program in April 2020. Six weeks after that, we hosted our first free faculty-led webinar, which focused on helping our global community respond to the repercussions of the health crisis.

Before the pandemic, we had a few online programs. In general, though, our faculty and participants preferred being together in person and on campus. We stuck with that model because we knew it worked. We needed a crisis to embrace online learning.

And as was true for many during the pandemic, we learned a few things—fast. It turns out that online executive education can be excellent. Everyone is in the front row. The cost of travel has evaporated. Classroom diversity is enhanced. Different learning styles are welcomed, and extended program lengths allow people to test what they are learning in their jobs in real time. Deeply interactive discussions between faculty members and learners, a cornerstone of our in-person programs, came alive online.

“It turns out online executive education can be excellent. Everyone is in the front row.”

Debra Iles

We also learned, through a difficult year, about the resilience of the Kennedy School team. The HKS faculty pulled together, building momentum and encouraging one another to move forward and revamp the curriculum for remote learning. The members of our staff rallied, expanding their skills to enable each program participant to be truly present in this new virtual world. Together, the faculty and the staff managed polls and chats, posted new video and audio materials, curated virtual study groups, and reviewed participants’ progress at every step.

Outside the classroom, we learned that many were eager to discover through our free webinars how COVID-19 was reshaping leadership, economics, and trade. We expanded what we thought was just a short-term offering to an ongoing series of faculty members sharing the latest research on racial justice, social justice, climate change, crisis, and new scholarship across the HKS spectrum. We’ve always known that the best leaders never stop learning, and thousands in our community showed up for this important content while they were facing some of the most extreme public challenges we’ve seen in decades.

Our mission has always been to bring HKS ideas and research to the broadest possible audience of senior-level leaders who are looking to apply new approaches to their work in real-time. Based on what we’ve learned this year, online learning’s expanded place in our programs is here to stay. Today we offer more than 60 online program sessions every year. And even when COVID-19 is behind us, we expect to stay 40% online.

Debra Iles is the senior associate dean for executive education at Harvard Kennedy School.

A time to rethink tax systems

Anders Jensen

Anders Jensen headshot

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to think about tax policy in an evidence-based way. It has put a lot of pressure on government budgets for unemployment benefits and other public goods, which means that the government must collect more taxes to provide them. But at the same time, the tax base has eroded owing to the various forms of lockdown that were necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19.  

Tax policies for the post-pandemic recovery period will thus require governments to be resourceful and to look at underutilized policy tools. To that end, the COVID-19 recovery phase may present a strong opportunity for a deeper overhaul of tax systems to improve efficiency and—perhaps even more important—equity.

Anders Jensen is an assistant professor of public policy who studies tax policy with a particular focus on countries’ capacity to tax.

Prioritizing process to prepare for the next shock

Asim Khwaja

Asim Khwaja headshot

The pandemic led to massive losses in many countries—of life, of livelihoods, and more.  The biggest lesson that I believe we can learn from these years of loss is that process matters. Shocks happen, and there is only so much a society can do to prepare for the worst kinds of shocks, such as COVID-19—one of the most devastating our world has experienced. 

What this specific shock revealed to me is that we didn’t have processes in place to navigate it in a way that wasn’t reactionary or destructive. We didn’t have measurement systems to figure out the extent of the problem, and we didn’t have ways to adjudicate the effectiveness of our policy responses to the problem. We were lacking the evidence we desperately needed as we designed costly policies, assuming that they would lead to a benefit instead of a huge cost. In some places around the world, policymakers overdid it, and in others, policies such as lockdowns to limit the spread of the virus, proved successful. These instances of failure or success derived more from reactionary decisions than from any evidence-based process. We could only depend on the loudest voices and a panicked desire to do something quickly in our policy responses.

“What this specific shock revealed to me is that we didn’t have processes in place to navigate the shock in a way that wasn’t reactionary or destructive.”

Asim Khwaja

I hope that we have now learned how critical it is to have effective response processes in place before the challenges that we will inevitably face in the future. Doing so will allow us to have a more thoughtful, evidence-driven, and conceptually valid response, as opposed to an immediate and desperate reaction.

Asim Khwaja is the director of the Center for International Development and the Sumitomo-FASID Professor of International Finance and Development.

Thinking outside—and inside—the Zoom box

Dan Levy

Dan Levy headshot

Q: How prepared was HKS for online learning when COVID-19 hit in March 2020?

Prior to COVID-19, the Kennedy School was already doing online learning, but it was mainly driven by a small number of faculty members and staff who strongly believed in its power to both expand reach and improve teaching and learning. There were many interesting initiatives in executive education. And there were pioneer faculty members, including Marshall Ganz and Matt Andrews. Teddy Svoronos, Pinar Dogan, I, and others were doing it as part of a blended learning approach. Then, a couple of years before the pandemic, a group of us started working on the Public Leadership Credential, which is the School’s flagship online learning initiative.

When we were forced by the pandemic to move to online learning, we were very fortunate to be able to leverage those previous efforts, and I think the School was better prepared for online learning because of them. That doesn’t mean it was easy to do, but it does mean that we had in-house expertise to help bring everyone into online teaching and learning.

Many of us had experience with asynchronous learning, whereby learners engage with online material but are not interacting live with teachers. So even some of us who had some experience had to adjust quickly to live online teaching.  I think it’s fair to say that there were growing pains. It was not easy at first, and I commend the spirit of the faculty and staff members. They looked for ways to innovate and make things work for students and were very resourceful and creative. That, to me, is one of the silver linings of the pandemic: the unleashing of creativity and resourcefulness that those involved in teaching and learning were able to bring to the enterprise.

“The pandemic has taught us to think more carefully about how to design successful learning experiences and programs for our students. We need to be better at putting ourselves in their shoes.”

Dan Levy

Q: You wrote a book about teaching with Zoom. How did that come about?

We went to online learning at the Kennedy School in March of 2020. By mid-May, I was seeing faculty members, both here and outside the School, use Zoom in creative ways. I started documenting those examples because I wanted to learn what they were doing—and I ended up putting together a book. I felt that people needed a one-stop place to learn how to teach effectively with Zoom, since that’s the platform most people were using. I hope the book is helpful, not only to colleagues at the Kennedy School and at Harvard but more broadly.

Q: What can we take from Zoom to the physical classroom?

Some aspects of teaching in the classroom are better—such as the magic that happens when people can engage in person. But it became clear to me that there are also some things we can do better online. Now that we’re transitioning back to in-person teaching, we can think about how to incorporate some of those advantages. The use of chat during live instruction on Zoom is an incredibly powerful tool for finding out quickly what’s on our students’ minds. As we return to classrooms, where we don’t have chat, we should think about alternative ways to get the same benefits. Another plus with teaching on Zoom is the breakout rooms, where you can put learners in groups. We’ve always done group work in classrooms, but on Zoom we experimented with having the groups use collaborative tools to document their work. Being able to better leverage group work for post-group discussions is something I hope we can bring into the physical classroom.

Q: What’s one lesson from teaching fully online during COVID-19 that you think we should not forget?

The pandemic has taught us to think more carefully about how to design successful learning experiences and programs for our students. We need to be better at putting ourselves in their shoes. That is a simple principle that should always guide teaching and learning, and it was especially evident over the past two years.

Dan Levy is a senior lecturer in public policy. He is the faculty director of the Public Leadership Credential, Harvard Kennedy School’s flagship online learning initiative, and the author of  Teaching Effectively with Zoom: A Practical Guide to Engage Your Students and Help Them Learn.

The White House is seen as a backdrop as people visit the 'In America: Remember' public art installation near the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The installation commemorates all the Americans who have died due to COVID-19. Image by Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Inline images by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, Andrei Pungovschi/Bloomberg /Getty Images, and Liu Guanguan/China News Service/Getty Images

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