fbpx How COVID-19 has changed public policy | Harvard Kennedy School

For months, the coronavirus has crawled across the globe. One person at a time, it has passed through millions, reaching every corner of the earth. And it has not only infected people, but every aspect of our human cultures. Policymakers and the public sector face their biggest test in generations—some say ever—as lives and livelihoods hang in a terrible, delicate balance. Facing health crises, economic collapse, social and political disruption, we try to take stock of what the pandemic has done and will do. We asked Harvard Kennedy School faculty, in fields ranging from climate change to international development, from democracy to big power relations, to tell us how this epochal event has changed the world.

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Public Leadership and Management

Democratizing Work

Julie Battilana headshot.

As the United States and countries around the world consider re-opening after COVID-19, we are faced with a crucial question: Is our current societal model working and, if not, what kind of societal model do we want for tomorrow? Staying the course would be a recipe for disaster. The current levels of social and economic inequality both globally and locally have become untenable, and the current pandemic only reinforces these inequalities. Moreover, we are pushing the limits of what our natural world can endure. The status quo must change if we hope to survive the combined health, social, economic, political, and environmental crises at hand.

In May, Isabelle Ferreras, Dominique Méda, and I joined forces to ask a simple question: What can we learn from the crises that we are facing? At the time, admittedly, our thinking was focused on making it through the COVID-19 period only. And yet, the solution we put forth in a joint manifesto, which has now been signed by 5,000 academics around the world, outlines a solution—democratizing work— that we hope can contribute to fighting the health, economic, social, and political crises stemming from COVID-19, as well as the longstanding crisis of anti-Black racism, for which calls for change have intensified in the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department.

What these crises are first and foremost teaching us is that humans never were and are not resources. They invest their lives, their time, and their sweat to serve the organizations that they work for and their customers. As we say in the manifesto itself, workers are not one type of stakeholder among many: they hold the keys to their employers’ success. Without workers, there would be no manufacturing plant, no deliveries, no production. All workers are essential. They are thus the core constituency of the firm. And, yet they remain excluded from participating in the government of their workplaces—a right that is still monopolized by capital investors. This exclusion is unfair and unsustainable and it prevents organizations from reaping the benefits of workplace democracy.

What I have seen in my research is that workplace democracy may well be critical to the success of corporations in the future. I have been studying organizations that pursue social and environmental objectives alongside financial ones for more than a decade. It is time we turn to these organizations and learn from their work as the economy as a whole transitions towards setting clear goals for employee well-being, and environmental and social metrics, alongside financial performance. My research reveals a critical link to workplace democracy: organizations that are more democratic—that give a voice to their workers—are better at staying the course and pursuing these multiple objectives.

Finally, democratizing workplaces is one of the most promising avenues for creating more just (including more racially just) workplaces where all workers—workers of color, women, workers with disabilities—have real control over resources, and an actual say, as equals in the governance of their organizations. By giving employees representation in decision-making bodies and the right to participate and control their organization’s strategic decisions, we can collectively build institutions that are truly equitable and fair.

Julie Battilana is Alan L. Gleitsman Professor of Social Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School; Joseph C. Wilson Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School; and the founder and faculty chair of the Social Innovation and Change Initiative.

The Rainy Day Is Here

Linda Bilmes headshot.

The single best way to strengthen the national economy right now is to help reboot local economies, which are reeling from the economic fallout of the pandemic. The United States has 90,000 jurisdictions—including cities, towns, school districts, and transit systems—that together provide the public with schools, water, sanitation, trash collection, fire safety, emergency medical response, and infrastructure. 

Local governments are now on the front line in fighting the pandemic: responsible for organizing local testing, contact tracing, treatment and isolation programs, buying protective equipment, and setting up a system to eventually deliver a vaccine. But their revenues have collapsed—and will be hit even harder when the new fiscal year starts on July 1.  

State revenues are a mixture of sales and income taxes, federal aid and user fees. Following the 2008 financial crisis, most states prudently set aside “rainy day funds” in order to improve their balance sheets. This time the revenue shortfall will be far deeper and will quickly deplete these funds. Many revenue-producing activities—such as tourism, international airports, conventions, and sporting events—are unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels for years. States that entered the pandemic in a poor fiscal position are especially vulnerable. And, unlike the federal government, states must balance their budgets. 

Meanwhile, local communities face an existential crisis. Revenues from sales taxes and user charges (tolls, parking fines, hotel and restaurant taxes, and the like) have dried up. And across America, small businesses—many of which are minority and women owned—are failing. Local governments will face a second fiscal crisis if property values fall, leading to a decline in property taxes.

State and local governments have already laid off 1.5 million employees, most of them teachers. A further 1.5 million are in danger of losing their jobs next month. Congress has provided some $200 billion in aid to states, but this is no match for the estimated $1.3 trillion revenue shortfall expected over the next three years. The Federal Reserve’s $500 billion Municipal Lending Facility is welcome, but it is only available to states and very large jurisdictions and must be repaid within three years. This will not help thousands of medium-sized communities that wish to issue longer-term debt to finance critical infrastructure projects that generate jobs.

States and municipalities are already taking steps to mitigate the damage. These include restructuring their balance sheets, entering into regional recovery efforts, carefully examining operating costs, adopting job-shares, monetizing fixed assets, pruning overheads and working closely with community banks. But at the end of the day, these efforts alone will not be enough to prevent cuts in vital local services that often fall on the most vulnerable. If night bus routes are curtailed, the night-shift nurse will be left standing outside the hospital waiting longer to get home.

Studies conducted in the 2008 crisis showed that each dollar invested this way produced a return to GDP of $1.3 to $1.55. In the current environment, we need to strengthen local communities by providing a flexible program of cash-flow assistance and long-term liquidity to states and localities.

Linda Bilmes is Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy.

Everyone Stays Home

Juliette Kayyem headshot.

The nexus between work and home has raised some interesting questions about how we prioritize “care,” mainly child care, as a critical infrastructure that needs to be prioritized in any crisis management response. We often think about a disaster, such as a hurricane or earthquake, as impacting water or food supply, or an electrical gird. But what if the response to the crisis is everyone—absolutely everyone—stays home. We can wish for an “opening up” but if our kids are home—if we haven’t figured out the school and even college issue—then it all seems rather besides the point.

Juliette Kayyem is Belfer Senior Lecturer in International Security.

Economy

The End of Austerity?

Jason Furman headshot.

The economic response to the pandemic by the United States and other advanced economies has been faster and larger than anything we have ever seen before, including both dramatic policies by central banks and extraordinary actions by fiscal policymakers. As a result, household incomes are actually up not down in many countries, and while consumer spending has fallen, at least in the United States it has fallen by a lot less than it did in the financial crisis. If policymakers follow through (in the United States this means extending) the assistance after its slated July 31st expiration, this could be a real demonstration that early, large and sustained fiscal policy responses can be successful in protecting families from the worst ravages of recessions and getting the economy back on track more quickly. Instead of the debates over austerity in the wake of the financial crisis, we might have broad agreement on the critical role of fiscal and monetary expansions after this crisis.

Jason Furman is Professor of the Practice of Economic Policy.

The Perfect Storm

Ricardo Hausmann headshot.

COVID-19 is causing the biggest economic downturn that developing countries have ever seen. Governments and the international community have prepared for a tropical storm, but it increasingly looks like a Category 5 hurricane. They need to act and they need to act fast to assure that the government is adequately financed to withstand the collapse in tax revenues and the need for increased health and social expenditures. Absence of such action will lead to a combination of currency, debt, and banking crises. Recovery from such avoidable events is slow and painful. 

Ricardo Hausmann is Rafik Hariri Professor of the Practice of International Political Economy.

It Will Never Be the Same

Lawrence Summers headshot.

COVID-19 is the most important development in my professional lifetime. The 1918 pandemic, the 1929 economic decline, the 1968 social implosion and the Andrew Johnson presidency all at once is how it’s been described. Labor markets, financial markets and international relations will never be the same.

Lawrence Summers is Charles W. Eliot University Professor.

The Tide Is Rolling Back

Rema Hanna headshot.

COVID-19 is a game-changer for much of the developing and emerging countries of the world, and not in a good way. 

COVID-19 hotspots are flaring up in many low-income countries. And, while it is challenging to combat the disease in developed countries, developing ones face even graver challenges. Combatting spread is difficult. Social distancing remains near impossible in the dense mega-cities. The lack of clean water in many poorer towns and villages prevents effective handwashing techniques. For those who do become ill, health systems are less developed, with fewer hospital beds and medical personnel per citizen, less technology, and less equipment and personal protective equipment.

But, it is not just the disease that will have a human toll. The corresponding slowing of the global economy from the pandemic is leading to unemployment and food insecurity. For the first time in over 20 years, we expect that global poverty will rise. This, in turn, may roll back gains in nutrition, education, and preventative health.

Rema Hanna is Jeffrey Cheah Professor of South-East Asia Studies.

International Affairs

A Dangerous Turn

Nicholas Burns headshot.

We are facing the most consequential set of challenges since the Great Depression and World War II. The United States, in particular, is at a dangerous turning point facing four fundamental crises:

  • The Coronavirus Crisis: With more than 120,000 Americans dead, inadequate testing and irresolute federal leadership, we are not well organized for a possible second wave;
  • The Economic Crisis: More Americans are unemployed now than any time since 1933 with no clear administration plan to encourage a recovery;
  • The Racial Crisis: There is nothing more dangerous to our future than continued domestic dysfunction, especially denial of justice to African Americans and other minority groups;
  • The Leadership Crisis: President Trump has failed to address these and other crises. His active attempt to divide Americans on race is the most disgraceful act by an American president in our lifetime. On this issue alone, he should be defeated on November 3.

There is hope. Americans have taken to the streets in the largest peaceful demonstrations in recent decades. Our businesses and universities lead the world in the digital age. The courts, career public servants in Washington, and the military leadership are defending democracy. Our students are ready to lead and to write the next chapter in the American story.

Nicholas Burns is Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations

Global Trends and Foreign Policy

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. headshot.

Will the COVID-19 pandemic change or accelerate pre-existing global trends? Many commentators predict the end of the era of globalization that prospered under U.S. leadership since 1945. Some see a turning point at which China surpasses the United States as a global power. Certainly, there will be major changes in many economic and social dimensions of world politics, but humility is in order. One must be wary of assuming that big causes have predictable big effects. For example, the 1918–1919 flu pandemic killed more people than World War I, yet the major global changes were a consequence of the war, not the disease.

Globalization—defined as interdependence across continents—is the result of changes in the technologies of transportation and communication which are unlikely to stop. Some aspects of economic globalization such as trade will be curtailed, but while economic globalization is influenced by the laws of governments, other aspects of globalization such as pandemics and climate change are determined by the laws of biology and physics. Walls, weapons, and tariffs do not stop their transnational effects.

Thus far American foreign policy has responded by denial and blaming others rather than taking the lead on international cooperation. On a speculative counterfactual, imagine an American administration taking its cue from the post-1945 U.S. presidents I describe in Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump. For example, the United States could launch a massive COVID-19 aid program—a medical version of the Marshall Plan. Instead of competing in propaganda, leaders could articulate the importance of power with rather than over others and set up bilateral and multilateral frameworks to enhance cooperation. Recurrent waves of COVID-19 will affect poorer countries less able to cope and a developing-world reservoir will hurt everyone if it spills northward in a seasonal resurgence. In 1918, the second wave of the pandemic killed more people than the first. Both for self-interested and humanitarian reasons, the United States could lead the G-20 in generous contributions to a major new COVID-19 fund that is open to all poor countries. If a U.S. president were to choose such cooperative and soft-power-enhancing policies, it might create a geopolitical turning point to a better world. More likely, however, the new coronavirus will simply accelerate existing trends toward nationalist populism, authoritarianism, and tense relations between the United States and China. 

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus.

Sounding a Retreat

Stephen Walt headshot.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the most disruptive global event since the Great Depression and World War 2. More than 7 million people have been infected in less than six months, more than 400,000 people have died, and many more deaths will occur even if effective vaccines or treatments are eventually found. The economic costs are staggering: much of the world has fallen into recession, public debt levels are soaring, and future growth prospects have dimmed.

Yet despite these far-reaching effects, the current pandemic will not transform the essential nature of world politics. The territorial state will remain the basic building-block of international affairs, nationalism will remain a powerful political force, and the major powers will continue to compete for influence in myriad ways. Global institutions, transnational networks, and assorted non-state actors will still play important roles, but the present crisis will not produce a dramatic and enduring increase in global governance or significantly higher levels of international cooperation.

Instead, COVID-19 is more likely to reinforce divisive trends that were underway before the first case was detected. In particular, it will accelerate a retreat from globalization, raise new barriers to international trade, investment, and travel, and give both democratic and non-democratic governments greater power to track and monitor their citizens’ lives. Global economic growth will be substantially lower than it would have been had the pandemic not occurred. Relations among the major powers will continue the downward trend that was apparent before the pandemic struck.

In short, the post-COVID-19 world will be less open, less free, less prosperous, and more competitive than the world that many people expected to emerge only a few years ago.

Stephen Walt is Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Relations.

A New Energy Landscape?

Meghan O’Sullivan headshot.

The coronavirus and the immobilization of much of the global economy that followed have created enormous challenges for energy markets. These challenges have been most pronounced in oil, in large part due to the fact that the majority of the world’s oil consumption is for transportation. Constraints on the mobility of billions of people around the world resulted in a drop in oil demand of approximately 25 million barrels a day, out of a pre-COVID demand of 100 million. This cratering of demand led to a dramatic decrease in prices, including a day in which the American benchmark for oil went into negative price territory.

These developments, and fear that such volatility in one of the world’s largest and most strategic industries could further exacerbate a teetering global economy, led to an unprecedented mobilization of international actors. In an extraordinary shift from past positions, the G20, the United States, and even President Trump personally became actively involved in brokering a deal among OPEC members and other allied producers to agree to the largest oil production cut in history. This cut, and market forces which brought several million more barrels of oil off-line in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, has helped stabilize oil markets, albeit from historic lows.

But critical questions remain, and debates are raging about whether the energy landscape will ever return to pre-COVID parameters. One of the most important, questions revolves around whether this abrupt rupture in energy markets can be translated into a boost for the transition to a more environmentally sustainable global energy mix. The answer to this question depends on how durable changes in consumer behavior are (particularly around travel), and whether governments seize the opportunity that pumping economic stimulus into their economies gives them to advance the energy transition. Europe has already demonstrated a willingness to use its stimulus packages to further the transition; China’s actions demonstrated a mixed intent, and—thus far—there has been little indication that advancing a clean energy transition is high on the list of U.S. policymakers’ priorities. The world has at least one opportunity to create a silver lining from the COVID crisis, but it will require vision and action to realize.

Meghan O’Sullivan is Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Relations.

Good and Bad News for Climate

Robert N. Stavins headshot.

The coronavirus pandemic will likely have profound effects on both climate change and climate change policy.  These impacts are mainly—but not exclusively—due to the severe economic downturn that has been brought about by the response of governments, firms, and individuals to the pandemic. With depressed economic activity, there has been and will continue to be a net reduction of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases linked with the observed net decrease in energy demand. Without the pandemic, overall, global emissions might have peaked in 2024. Instead, it now appears that global emissions may have peaked last year, in 2019. That’s good news for climate change, but economic recession is surely not a desirable approach to mitigating emissions.

The impact of economic recession is surely less positive for the course of environmental and climate change policy. Political will for environmental policies and regulations always decreases during economic downturns. However, the financial responses by governments to the recession can compensate for this, at least partly. Short-term financial assistance and economic relief have reasonably been focused on helping economies recover as rapidly as possible, as well as targeting relief to those in society who have been particularly disadvantaged. But long-term economic stimulus can include elements that help move the economy in a green, climate-friendly direction—less reliance on fossil fuels, greater reliance on renewable sources of energy, and greater efficiency in the production and use of energy. In the last recession, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included abundant use of such green incentives. And now the European Union’s proposed Economic Recovery Plan does likewise. Whether such an approach is used this year and next year in the United States, however, depends upon difficult domestic politics, not to mention the outcome of the November election.

Robert N. Stavins is A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy and Economic Development.

Society and Health

A New Look at Business and Government

Amitabh Chandra headshot.

Coronavirus and other health pandemics will happen again, and sooner than we think because of climate change. COVID-19 provides an opportunity to seriously examine the roles of business and government in society, to figure out what each is best at doing, to figure out what each is not well-suited to deliver, and what they must do more of together. These determinations must be made in a clear-eyed manner with data, incentives, and a tremendous sense of social-justice for the poor and vulnerable.

Amitabh Chandra is Ethel Zimmerman Wiener Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Henry and Allison McCance Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School.

The Worrying Rise of Digitalization

Matthias Risse headshot.

In times of crises, such as pandemics, all of society’s underlying vulnerabilities lie bare: the long history of injustice, of not respecting people’s rights as citizens and as human beings, lifts its ugly head one more time. We hardly need reminders that not all is well in the human rights domain, but COVID-19 definitely is one. Also, many of the responses to this pandemic, in one way or another, have rather forcefully driven along the digitalization of our lifeworlds. The possibilities for surveillance as practiced by both governments and private sector will increase enormously. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formulated in responses to centuries of hardship in a thoroughly analog world. COVID-19 is one more, very big step into an increasingly digital world in which human rights not only need to be rethought in their new context, one by one, but also need to be defended in ways that themselves make use of the compulsory digitalization that happens all around us.

Mathias Risse is Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Administration.

Rebuild What? And How?

William C. Clark and Alicia Harley.

Our work on sustainable development invites a long-term perspective on today’s overlapping crises, of which the coronavirus, racism, and climate heating are only the most visible faces. From that intergenerational perspective, shocks and surprises are the norm, not the exception. Sometimes they stem from wars, sometimes from environmental degradation, sometimes from technological innovations, sometimes from revolutionary ideas … and sometimes from pandemics.  Such disruptions invariably impoverish or kill some people, while opening opportunities for others. They can also lay bare underlying social inequalities that incumbent regimes have ignored or papered over. This is certainly the case today, where it has become starkly clear how the burden of our overlapping crises is falling disproportionately on people who are Black or poor or otherwise socially marginalized.

The long-term perspective of the quest for sustainable development also highlights the reality that—however terrible the immediate impacts of history’s cataclysmic disruptions—their ultimate consequences for human well-being are not foreordained, but rather depend on how we choose to rebuild in their wake.

But rebuild what? And how?

Research suggests that the prospects for rebuilding a more just and prosperous world—and a world better prepared to weather the next shocks that will inevitably come along—depend on long-term programs of action to strengthen and maintain the following six interdependent social capacities:

  • The capacity to conserve and enhance the natural and anthropogenic resources that constitute the productive base of society.
  • The capacity to assure greater equity in access to that resource base and the flow of goods and services produced from it.
  • The capacity to adapt to unexpected shocks through identification and provisioning of essential reserves and through practice in mobilizing them.
  • The capacity to transform unsustainable development pathways into more sustainable ones through disempowerment of incumbents vested in unjust aspects of the status quo.
  • The capacity to link knowledge with action in ways that enhance the effectiveness of political agitation aimed at equitable improvements in well-being.
  • The capacity to govern—to work together to achieve what we can’t achieve alone—and thus to develop and implement all the other capacities in an integrated and mutually supportive fashion.

An integrated strategy of capacity building is no substitute for immediate action to meet the basic needs and redress the violent injustices facing us in today’s crises. But such a strategy is a historically informed alternative to the temptations facing each of us to focus exclusively on the single ill or capacity about which we feel most strongly. The capacities we list here are complementary, not competitive. Society has already built a significant understanding of how to foster each of them, and has sometimes learned to integrate them in sustained programs that support deep and long-lasting social change. Such programs should be put into action today by diverse actors at multiple scales in concerted efforts to rebuild a more just and sustainable world from the wreckage of our current crises.

William C. Clark is Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development; Alicia G. Harley is Post-Doctoral Fellow, Sustainability Science Program.

Democracy

A Just and Democratic New Normal

Archon Fung headshot.

A perfect storm of three crises is battering America: a public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic; a civic crisis of widespread protests sparked by racist police abuse; and an economic crisis of record unemployment and dislocation. Between now and November, we may well face a fourth political crisis surrounding the presidential election, its conduct, and perhaps even its outcome. These crises have vanquished all sense of normalcy for now. But, in the longer term, will we be able to create a better new normal? What world will COVID-19 leave behind?

Writing in the Financial Times, Peter Atwater foresees a ”K”-shaped recovery. The upward part of the “K”—people who will do better than before these crises—consists of professionals and others in others at the top end of the income distribution. The bottom part of the “K” consists of “have-nots” who may fare even worse than they did before the crisis: essential but sometimes disposable workers, sometimes lacking health care, sick leave, employment, and low-income and people of color whom we now know suffer much more from damage of COVID-19.

If the future is this “K,” COVID will merely have accelerated the trends toward economic, social, political, and health inequities that have been widening in the United States for the past forty years: a quickening of the old normal as we knew it.

But perhaps it is within our grasp to create a different new normal, one that is more equitable and democratic. We can see shoots of this better new normal in the civic federalism of local responses to COVID-19’s damage. Many governors and mayors stepped up with energy and creative solutions to protect public health and map the way to recovery. Some businesses and nonprofits took costly action early to protect their employees and communities. Labor and community advocates organized immediate aid, but also spoke up for the least advantaged.

There are more shoots visible in the huge protests following George Floyd’s killing. People of many races and classes have awakened to the reinforcing harms of economic inequality, disease, and racism. Himself an avatar of this intersectionality, Floyd lost his job as a security guard because of the pandemic, contracted COVID-19 in April, and was killed several weeks later by Minneapolis police.

Will these shoots multiply into a robust new American democracy? Or, will they be mowed down by the juggernauts of racism and plutocracy that preceded this pandemic? The answer is up to us.

Archon Fung is Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government.

Information Is Survival Gear

Nancy Gibbs headshot.

This pitiless spring of 2020 has exploited the forces that already weakened us: our political divisions, our doubts, and our intersecting injustices. Partisan division turned public health measures into performance art; distrust of institutions deepened as they struggled to respond; and the weight of suffering, physical and economic, on communities of color has inspired people all around the world to risk their own health and safety to come into the streets in solidarity.

Early in this crisis, the World Health Organization warned of an “Infodemic”— people overwhelmed by information, some of it true, much of it not, that made it harder for anyone to know what to believe. In the months since we’ve seen just how viral conspiracy theories can be, spread by those looking to divide us even further or profit from our fears. So both the media and the platforms that control so much of our information ecosystem face a reckoning that was long overdue. We are seeing that play out in real time, from the serial policy adjustments at Facebook and Twitter to the soul searching at our largest newsrooms to the desperate efforts to save what remains of local news.

Good information is more than a democratic value; it is survival gear. When people show up in emergency rooms after drinking bleach in hopes of preventing infection, or blame 5G, GMOs, or Bill Gates for the spread of the virus, we have failed to protect our information streams from lethal toxins. So out of this crisis, for all our divisions and distrust, should come a deep and broad debate over rules and norms about speech: who controls what we read and see and hear; how do we honor both freedom and fairness; what can we do to promote reliable information even as we prevent misinformation from spreading? We aren’t likely to agree on the way forward; so the next test is how well we create the conditions for debate, listening with open minds, putting the public interest first and realizing that the tension between values can be a source of strength, not an excuse for surrender.

Nancy Gibbs is Lombard Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy; Visiting Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice.

When Misinformation Mobilizes

Joan Donovan headshot.

As a researcher of critical internet studies who specializes in media manipulation and disinformation, I am often asked about how social media impacts society. When it comes to thinking about health misinformation on tech platforms, we must recognize how quickly people’s behaviors change when exposed to new information. Questions about how to protect yourself and family from COVID-19 became a breeding ground for misinformation, where political polarization exacerbated an already contentious issue. To wear a mask or to not became a show of partisanship as the relatively innocuous recommendation became a political discussion on social media.

As the pandemic hit, like a slow-moving hurricane, many took shelter indoors and followed along closely online, where social media platforms amplified both truth and misinformation about COVID-19. Rumors and conspiracy about medical recommendations sit alongside data about potential risk and harm, which are difficult for public health professions to address. Some health misinformation underpins in-person rallies to reopen the economy in the United States, where activists claimed COVID-19 was a grand hoax by Democrats to hijack the election. When misinformation mobilizes, it can endanger the public.

For the last decade, we have witnessed social media platforms, like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, become the most indispensable conduits of information during social upheaval, elections, and natural disasters. But, if we look back to their origins, they were not designed for such critical communication infrastructure: YouTube began as a dating site; Facebook was a place for college students to network; and Twitter’s purpose as a microblog was described by CEO Jack Dorsey as “a short burst of inconsequential information.” How things have changed!

The lessons we learn today about how to handle health misinformation may hold the key to developing public policy on other forms of disinformation, especially as it relates to the role social media companies will play in curating content online.

Tech companies are slowly coming to the realization that it’s not just their corporate reputations at stake; it’s also our lives.

Joan Donovan is Research Director at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Banner photo by REUTERS / Eric Gaillard.

Faculty portraits by Martha Stewart.

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