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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Northwestern Buffett hosts transnational dialogue on COVID-19 with cultural and medical anthropologist, Adia Benton

Northwestern University researcher Adia Benton discussed topics central to the COVID-19 pandemic in a webinar hosted this week by Northwestern’s Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The webinar raised provocative questions related to what is and isn’t known about COVID-19 and its transmission dynamics, as well as the implications of the response to COVID-19 for various forms of governance and our global society, writ large. Here are five key takeaways:

“Think about what kind of powers are granted in any kind of emergency.” Do certain forms of governance achieve greater legitimacy under the national emergency? What movements are restricted when governments invoke a state of emergency? What are we normalizing here? These were among the many important questions Benton raised in urging people to think about what kind of powers governments are granted in a state of emergency and the citizens’ rights within that context. “People who study authoritarianism are very worried about the possibilities a national emergency opens up,” Benton said. “You want government to be able to implement interventions that ensure others don’t get sick, but also want to make sure those powers don’t grow out of control. We face strict interventions when other interventions, such as widespread testing, fail.”

Benton urged people to become familiar with what a national, state, and city emergency means—health wise, mobility wise, and otherwise. She also touched on the importance of understanding what additional resources a state of emergency unlocks and how those can be distributed in an equitable way.

“We need to reimagine our international institutions.” Dr. Benton noted she thinks of events like the European Football Championship and the Olympics as emblematic of why we need a truly global versus fragmented response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Even if Japan stops transmission of the virus, Japan is going to be hosting millions of people from all over the world,” Benton noted. “What a global response means is trust in transnational, global institutions and we don’t have that right now.” Benton attributed the relative weakness of international organizations to their bureaucratic structures and talked about the need to “reimagine them outside of their existing hierarchies as institutions of solidarity,” in which included entities take up a common cause like public health. “Are other models available to us that we can think through as organizers and communities?” Benton asked. “This is going to take lots of people putting their heads together.”

“We need to consider epidemiological and clinical concerns in the context of different social and economic realities.”  Dr. Benton acknowledged the importance of flattening the COVID-19 curve to mitigate a more rapid spread of the virus and maxing out our health care system’s capacity, but stressed the need to think about what that looks like in the context of different regions—a densely populated urban environment versus a rural area, for example—and tailor responses appropriately. “We have to ensure our response to this pandemic doesn’t cause as much strife as the pandemic itself,” she said. “Racial and class divides will reveal fault lines in care and social safety nets and said we need to think about things like rent control and public transportation, not just social distancing.”

“COVID-19 has revealed major structural weaknesses and risks within our health system.” Dr. Benton pointed to the structural weaknesses in our society that COVID-19 is illuminating. “We’re learning a lot about our health system, in terms of the quality of care that is possible in different places,” she said. “There is no hero to save us. We need a range of actors to do their jobs and it seems we’re not properly equipped in ways we should be.” Benton pointed specifically to the lack of consistency and coordination in responses to COVID-19 at the federal, state, and local levels, calling our decentralized public health system both a strength and weakness. She also touched on the “propagation risk” associated with COVID-19, noting those in vulnerable populations who need medical attention for conditions not related to COVID-19 may not seek it out of fear they will contract the virus or not be able to access care in a health system overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases.

“We need family plans, not just community plans.” As government officials worldwide mandate or encourage sheltering in place or social distancing in workplaces and other venues outside the home, Dr. Benton stressed the importance of thinking about what we can do to prevent the localized spread of COVID-19 within our homes. We aren’t accustomed to sanitizing and disinfecting every surface in our homes, and we aren’t comfortable rejecting hugs and kisses from our toddlers, she acknowledged, “but we need to think about family distancing as a part of social distancing. The structures of our households matter as much as what we’re doing in the outside world.”

The dialogue also raised other questions: What are the consequences of well-meaning risk mitigation processes for rising authoritarianism?  What can we learn from other governments’ responses to COVID-19? How do we think about what a global solution looks like for a global pandemic? Northwestern Buffett will host a series of digital discussions that explore these questions and more in the weeks to come.