Last updated: June 7, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it has produced are acute problems that have turned our world upside down. Even while we grapple with this twin crisis that is producing so much death, sickness, and loss of jobs, businesses, and income, many people are seeing for the first time the faults in our system that have either made the crisis worse, or been made worse by the crisis. These faults are many of the same systemic problems that this website was designed to spotlight.

This problem brief differs from others on the site. The pandemic and economic crisis are an attack on the systems that support our way of life, but they are not themselves systemic problems. Our aim is not to cover the rapidly evolving pandemic and its economic fallout but to instead focus on each of the systemic problems where this dual crisis is having an impact – or where it may have an impact as new policies and business practices and consumer habits evolve as we emerge from the crisis. As many people have suggested, and the history of prior pandemics illustrate (discussed in this Smithsonian magazine article and this Business Insider piece, among others), we will return to a new normal that will be both somewhat familiar but substantially different.

At the same time, we understand how challenging it is to sift through the enormous amount of information being generated in the media about the virus, the disease, the loss of jobs, and the economy. We’re searching to find reliable voices that are capable of helping us understand and navigate the little that we know, the promise of new research, and the priorities involved in the decisions that need to be made. We are collecting the best of the tools and resources that we find right where we normally would – as part of this brief, and also in the Tools & Resources section of the site. If you know of a particularly useful tool or resource that can help us understand the virus and its impact on our world, please share it with us.

As noted above, these areas are the parts of the American system that have long been in need of repair and improvement. We have published detailed problems briefs on some, and plan to do so for the others. The descriptions found here simply identify how the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis are raising new challenges related to each systemic problem.


The coronavirus has inaugurated a new and dangerous wave of health-related misinformation. Because several falsehoods have started with or been promoted by President Trump, misinformation regarding the virus’ risk to the nation and the effectiveness and reliability of unproven treatments have achieved quick and widespread visibility. The spread of misinformation surrounding the virus grew so severe so quickly that by the end of March the UN deemed it an infodemic.

Voting rights

The easily spread virus is particularly problematic in an election year. The problem is two-fold:

  1. Many, if not most, poll workers across the country are volunteers who tend to be senior citizens – people who are considered to be most vulnerable to the worst of COVID-19. Naturally, many of these volunteers are reluctant to show up and risk exposure. In Wisconsin’s April primary, Milwaukee had to close 175 of 180 polling centers.
  2. Asking voters to risk exposing themselves and others to the virus in order to vote in the midst of a pandemic strikes many Americans as dangerous and irresponsible, especially when a viable alternative can be made available.

That viable alternative is mail-in voting, which has been proven secure and effective in several states prior to the pandemic. Despite resistance from the Republican Party and protests from President Trump, who has said publicly that mail-in voting would be bad for Republican candidates, many states have moved ahead and expanded vote-at-home options, either temporarily or permanently.

National debt

Congress has acted very fast to combat the economic fallout of social distancing and stay-at-home policies that have put tens of millions of American out of work and shuttered many small businesses. As Maya MacGuineas, head budget hawk at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said early on in the crisis, “This is a national emergency, and it is exactly the kind of time when we should borrow money as necessary to help deal with this emergency. While it’s unfortunate we are entering this crisis already over-indebted and running trillion-dollar deficits, this is not the moment to let our large deficits stand in the way of responding quickly and aggressively.”

The national debt is now larger than the productive capacity of the economy, and still growing. When the crisis is over, we will face quite a fiscal reckoning that will challenge the anti-tax politics that rose to dominance over the last four decades.

Wealth and income inequality

The twin crises have helped to highlight some of the inequities in our economic system:

  • Because most service jobs cannot be done remotely and were not deemed “essential”, low income workers and their families have been hit hardest by layoffs as businesses shut down to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Those low income workers in jobs that were deemed “essential”, such as grocery clerks, farmworkers and packing plant employees, and food and other delivery drivers, continue to work despite the risk of exposure and without their new status as “essential” translating into increased income or benefits.
  • Outside of nursing homes, the coronavirus appears to have hit low income communities hardest. Healthcare professionals and others suspect this may be a product of their limited access to healthcare, which has left many in these communities in poor health and so, more susceptible to the virus.
  • While low income workers and their families struggle to put food on the table and to pay their rent or mortgage, several of the country’s wealthiest people have fled to or are comfortably secure in the knowledge that they have prepared “apocalyptic” havens and bunkers that are protected and well-stocked with food and other supplies for events like the pandemic.

Labor and Automation

Since soon after the pandemic forced the closing of many businesses and caused unemployment to soar, numerous reports have suggested that businesses were accelerating their investments in automation. Forbes contributor Simon Chandler’s article, “Coronavirus Is Forcing Companies To Speed Up Automation, For Better And For Worse”, confirms this trend is happening. The likely result is that some of the jobs lost during the pandemic will be filled by machines in the very near future, with former employees simply out of luck.

[Information on additional impacts to come.]

Protecting Your Health

Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker: This tracker from The NY Times does a great job keeping up with the 100+ efforts to find a vaccine. It offers detail on only those vaccines that have reached human trials.

Coronavirus Drug and Treatment Tracker: This NY Times tracker covers “the most talked about treatments for the coronavirus.” It breaks them down according to the accumulation of evidence to support their use, and identifies those that are fraudulent or dependent on pseudoscience.

CDC Coronavirus 2019: From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this resource identifies need-to-know information on symptoms and testing, guidance on how to reduce the spread of the virus, what to do if you are in the high risk population, how to prepare, and additional resources.

Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University & Medicine: Offers a range of information, including guidance on protecting your health and answers to frequently asked questions.

Containing the Virus

Expanding Mass Surveillance While Protecting Privacy: This Australian’s perspective, published in MIT Technology Review, offers an historical perspective on contact tracing and the stigma associated with it, and suggests some parameters for implementing safeguards from new data-driven technologies that can tell public health officials who we’ve been in contact with.

Balancing Privacy and Public Health: This opinion piece in Stat from Dr. David Blumenthal, president of the Commonwealth Fund, and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) offers some helpful thinking on introducing new contact tracing technologies into the centuries-old method of tracking down people who had contact with those who are newly infected.

Five Ways to Follow the Coronavirus Outbreak for Any Metro Area in the U.S.: This page from The NY Times offers useful ways to look at the current status of the virus’ spread and the mortality rate, among other things, in metropolitan areas around the country. One drop-down menu allowed us to choose Washington, DC, and the associated graph showed us a secondary rise in infections occurring in the DC metro area after about a week in which we seemed to have flattened the curve.

Tracking the Global Outbreak: This The NY Times page offers a different set of insights into what countries have the most infections and where in the world the virus is spreading fastest. There is also a link to a page that offers similar insights into the outbreak here in the US.

Understanding COVID-19

Naming the virus and the disease: This page from the World Health Organization (WHO) explains how the virus came to be called SARS-CoV-2 and this particular coronavirus disease COVID-19.

How Coronavirus Attacks the Body: This video from the George Washington University Hospital and the NY Times offers a good explanation of the respiratory crisis that has killed so many COVID-19 patients.

Testing for COVID-19: This page from Lab Tests Online, a free public resource from the laboratory testing community, explains what COVID-19 is, how it is tested, and much more.

COVID-19 Expert Database: This fact-checking resource dedicated to debunking misinformation around COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 is provided by the Digital Health Lab, organized by Meedan to develop a standard of care for responding to health misinformation online. Ask a question and get it answered by a community of health practitioners, researchers, journalists, and activists and end-users actively engaged in reducing health misinformation.

Getting Through the Economic Stoppage

“CARES Act to the Rescue”: This article from FORBES breaks down what the CARES Act legislation does for small and mid-size businesses, franchisors, and franchisees.

What’s in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act: This breakdown from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget offers a debate-free look at what’s in the relief package that became law on Mar 26.

CARES Act Provisions and Analysis: The National Law Review provides a detailed breakdown of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Phase III of the federal government’s response to COVID-19.

Voting While Social Distancing

Vote by mail in your state: This tool from Represent Us will tell you whether you can vote by mail in your state and, if you can, how to get your ballot, and if not, what steps you can take to help expand vote by mail in your state.

Vote at Home Reference Library: This PDF from the National Vote at Home Institute includes links to a variety of resources for learning about vote at home.

Time to Vote: If you represent a civic-minded business, this is where you can join that part of the business community that is committed to giving their employees the day off to make sure they can vote. Started before the coronavirus crisis struck, the additional time may be even more important now as COVID-19 may reduce the number of polling places, which will lead to longer lines and require more time for voters to cast their vote.

Accountability for the Debt

COVID Money Tracker, launched by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, says it “will track every significant financial action taken to address the current crisis and then follow the dollars over time to provide valuable information on how much has been disbursed (or paid back) and to whom.” The Committee did the same thing for the stimulus spending during the Great Recession.

Related Problems: Voting RightsNational Debt

Researched and written by George Linzer

Published on April 22, 2020

Updates: April 23, April 24, May 21, June 4, June 7, June 19

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