March 2020
REUTERS/Edgard Garrido


Grappling with COVID-19: Public policy choices explored

The new coronavirus has spread rapidly across the world, reaching more than 160 countries and territories, infecting more than 250,000 people, and killing more than 10,000. From regional and national lockdowns in Italy and China to disruptions in international travel and trade to school closings across America, unprecedented public challenges spawned by the new coronavirus are requiring public leaders to consider equally unprecedented measures. What should the public sector do to address this crisis? What can governments do to contain this epidemic and manage the severe disruption it is causing? And what are they doing wrong? From battling misinformation to prioritizing treatment, Harvard Kennedy School experts address the critical and difficult roles the public sector must play in the ongoing coronavirus epidemic.


An emergency response for the economy

A veteran of the White House’s response to the Great Recession, HKS Professor Jason Furman has called on the federal government to act swiftly and decisively in curtailing the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. He calls for a stimulus package including cash payments for all Americans, and stresses the importance of leadership and staying ahead of the crisis. Furman, professor of the practice of economic policy, served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers from 2013 to 2017. In a much-cited column in the Wall Street Journal in early March, Furman laid down policy proposals that have been embraced on both sides of the Capitol aisle as Congress rushed to craft stimulus legislation. Furman called for measures that would be fast, big, comprehensive, and dynamic.


Protecting the nation’s emergency preparedness

Since taking office, the Trump administration has sought to cut funding for federal offices that guard against and respond to pandemics like COVID-19, writes Harvard Kennedy School Senior Lecturer Linda Bilmes, an expert on government budgeting. Congress has reversed most of those proposed budget cuts, she adds, but the budgets are still about 10 percent below what the United States spent in 2016 for these agencies, adjusted for inflation. Bilmes’ analysis shows that the administration called for slashing the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including its infectious disease research, by $1.3 billion in 2020 alone. Comparing the CDC’s overall budget of $6.5 billion to the $738 billion defense budget, Bilmes argues that the deadly threat of global pandemics poses "an equal or greater threat to our national security.”


Key to economic recovery: Bold credit and fiscal policies

In confronting the economic shock inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the most important goals for policymakers should be to ensure that credit keeps flowing and that sufficiently bold fiscal policies stimulate economic activity and rebuild confidence. That’s the view of Harvard economists Karen Dynan, former assistant secretary and chief economist at the U.S. Treasury, and Doug Elmendorf, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office who now is dean of the Kennedy School. In an analysis of macroeconomic challenges facing policymakers, Dynan and Elmendorf argue that credit markets are far more important than the stock market in this crisis; credit markets need to keep functioning so individuals and businesses can borrow money. So far, the stress on the financial system is not as severe as it was in the 2007-8 crisis, they argue, and the Federal Reserve still has more tools to keep credit flowing if needed. Fiscal stimulus measures being enacted by Congress are also vital to support households and keep up business confidence, according to Dynan and Elmendorf. They say the resulting increase in the budget deficit is less worrying than the risk of failing to act decisively and speedily.



Juliette Kayyem on worst-case scenarios: Crisis management in a chaotic world (PolicyCast)

Professor Jason Furman’s proposed payout to every American adult to prod spending and fight COVID-19



Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Crisis Leadership: 20 things leaders need to know now


  • The realist’s guide to the coronavirus outbreak [Stephen Walt] Foreign Policy

  • The economic message from equity markets [Jeffrey Frankel] Project Syndicate

  • The collateral damage of the coronavirus [Juliette Kayyem] Boston Globe

  • During the coronavirus epidemic, we will be separated. We still have to stick together. [Wendy Sherman] USA Today

  • Scale the price for a coronavirus vaccine by the harm it averts [Amitabh Chandra] Boston Globe

  • Why odds of a coronavirus recession have risen [Jeffrey Frankel] Harvard Gazette

  • The 5 things we need to know to fight coronavirus [Archon Fung] Politico



How long will it take, I wonder, before we settle on a new normal?.... When we get bored of being scared, how will our risk calculations change, and what will freedom feel like?

Nancy Gibbs, Director, Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, writing in the Washington Post.

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