A first rough draft of a toolkit and its user manual to rebuild from the ravages of COVID-19

While this new 'toolkit’ from the LBJ School of Public Affairs feels a bit rough-hewn in places, that is in many ways its true value. Hastily assembled, it is a kind of public policy field medicine -- quick, imperfect and clearly just a first round of calls to action with much more to follow

Scaffolding the post-pandemic rebuilding of American institutions
Image: The Volcker Alliance

Above all else the Pandemic of 2020 has forced all of us to focus relentlessly on the present in a year of misery and turmoil. From the loss felt by the families of nearly 300,000 victims and counting, to joblessness for millions, to losses still to be calculated in a year of on-again/off-again remote schooling, COVID-19 has wrought trauma of which we’ve only begun to take stock.

But with a tortuous election (almost) behind us, a vaccine cavalry on the horizon and the prospect of return to coherence in government policy-making, normalcy is no longer a chimera. It’s just that “normalcy” is certain to look very different. For the plague has left not just devastation in its wake but is accelerating the arrival of a future fraught with old and new challenges to which we are only now beginning to turn our gaze.

But turn our gaze we must. And so as we step into this liminal space, a “toolkit” to begin hammering out new ways of conceiving and dealing with problems from early childhood health care, to local government finance, to transformed geo-political challenges and threats is here. This is what the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin has produced this week with a newly published report that wrestles with this future-focused task.

It’s called Resiliency in the Age of COVID-19 — A Policy Toolkit. A product of the school’s new “do-tank” dubbed the LBJ Urban Lab, the 116-page survey of problems and prescriptions might be termed a “think paper” on resilience as both concept and goal. Less a single recipe for action, it is more a collective brainstorm among 29 scholars, some famed with national reputations and others still graduate students. And it’s this remarkably diverse set of perspectives that makes this endeavor much more authentic than many academic white papers. Rather, it’s an assembled-in-real-time exercise that examines much of what’s already on your cell phone newsfeed — but more that is not.

Such as just how and why this is a dress rehearsal for the responses we must muster in the face of climate change. Or why “revenue sharing,” a fiscal model for federal-local relations, invented by the Richard Nixon Administration and shelved by Ronald Reagan’s, is a comet-like idea due to return. Or how we need to reform immigration law and practice as if our lives depended on it, because they do. Not just because at least a third of poorly paid essential health care and agriculture workers are immigrants, many of them undocumented, which you probably knew. It’s also because 40 percent of medical and health science researchers are also foreign-born, which perhaps you didn’t know.

Which, while not a subject of the toolkit, is still an insight that prompts a bow toward the CEO of first-across-the-vaccine-finish line Pfizer, who is a Greek immigrant to the United States and his partner in the drug’s development, the CEO of BioNtech, who is a Turkish immigrant to Germany.

Inequities and vulnerabilities deep, raw and exposed

“With the coronavirus pandemic still raging out of control, unemployment remains stubbornly high, local governments are rapidly running out of money, and small businesses are closing in droves,” writes Steven W. Pedigo, the project’s editor and LBJ Urban Lab director. “Meanwhile, our hyper-polarized political climate, renewed awareness of racial inequality, and the increasingly frequent and severe wildfires, hurricanes, storms, and other natural disasters are heightening tensions across society. America’s deep inequities and vulnerabilities are as raw and exposed as they’ve ever been.”

While well written and edited for a non-academic audience, the toolkit does feel a bit rough-hewn in places: A section on intelligence failures by the CIA and others a bit clubby; a survey of growing collaboration among Austin NGO’s a little jargon-heavy; some of the economic analyses a tad esoteric. The section on Texas’ dire and growing water crises is fascinating and its recommendations urgent. But citing research all dated before 2014, it may understate the crises before Texas. Its focus on the critical water scarcity in the Rio Grande Valley skips such recent events as a September-October standoff between Mexican farmers and the Mexican army after the farmers seized a dam to prevent the shipment of a year’s worth of water contracted for by Texas.

But in many ways that is the price of this report’s true value, which is a kind of policy field medicine — quick, imperfect and clearly just a first diagnosis with much more to follow.

Federalism: Our marble cake of federalism, with local governments flat and networked and the federal government hierarchical and siloed, needs attention. “Not only is the fatality rate in the US higher than in any other federal system, but it’s twice as high as in Canada and Switzerland, and four times higher than in Germany,’’ the study finds.

Slashed local government and schools budgets: Without innovation in federal-local relations, such as a return to the revenue sharing model of decades ago, Texas alone will face an $18 billion budget shortfall next year. Another among many ideas is a state version of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, essentially rebating some taxes to low income families. Without such change, “states and cities facing severe drops in their revenues may have to lay off teachers, police, and first responders or defer spending on capital projects, even if they receive more federal funds for pandemic related health care.”

Global poverty alleviation: While the U.S. situation is dire, in many poor countries it is ghastly. Half the world’s global workforce — 1.5 billion people — are jobless or soon will be, driving childhood hunger, delayed learning, forced marriage of children and refugee flows. But among other examples of institutional foot-dragging, the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral agencies have only dispersed $90 billion of their authorized resources of nearly $1 trillion – just 12.6 percent.

Strengthened democracies, renewed U.S. leadership: While populists and authoritarians have made short-term gains by exploiting fears of COVID-19, there’s no evidence of a “lasting dictator’s dividend” as the nations most successful in confronting the plague have been liberal democracies, including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Denmark, New Zealand, and Germany. This may well “enable a more realistic form of globalization as well as renewed cooperation between the world’s democratic states… The COVID pandemic reminds us that ‘American leadership’ is not a trite euphemism.”

Learning from local lessons: Austin’s non-profit CommUnityCare health clinics transitioned 70 percent of their in-person health care appointments to remote telemedicine after the pandemic began. Mobilization of food delivery services for the elderly, expansion of food pantries for the poor and outreach to the homeless have reached thousands. Mainly with volunteers. Food Apple, a grocery delivery company, launched from The Impact Factory at UT Austin, leveraged partnerships with local farms, food banks and pantries, private transportation companies, city government, and philanthropies to deliver 650,000-plus pounds of healthy food directly to the doors of more than 21,000 older adults with low incomes and others at high-risk from COVID-19.

And the toolkit offers much more, with calls to action ranging from the means to improve dire conditions in prisons that are effectively “petri dishes” for COVID-19 and other diseases, to the need to diffuse expertise siloed among University of Texas experts and institutions to create new learning models in schools or new financial management models in local government. 

There is much to do, much to learn and much to teach, the LBJ toolkit argues.

“Soon, we will have ‘recovered’ from the COVID-19 pandemic,” it concludes. “But will we have transformed the policies, practices, and systems that were responsible for our flawed response?”

The toolkit hardly provides the answer. But it is an excellent place to begin asking the question broadly.

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